Dislocation. A young girl, one of thousands of evacuees affected by the standoff in Zamboanga City, feeds her younger sister inside their makeshift shelter at a sports complex; more evacuees are shown at the sports complex; soldiers aboard a Humvee stand guard amid smoke from burning houses; some evacuees sit anchored in their wooden boats near the sea wall. AFP

(MANILA STANDARD) By Joyce Pangco Panares - THE Palace on Sunday ruled out new ceasefire talks with the Nur Misuari-led faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) as government troops pressed their attack on the rebels, who torched buildings to cover their escape after a seven-day standoff.

By Sunday afternoon, the military said the MNLF had suffered 51 dead. Another 19 were either captured or surrendered as soldiers slowly retook positions that had been overrun by the rebels. On the government side, the casualties remained at six dead and 59 wounded. At least four civilians were dead.

A source privy to the negotiations said Misuari has asked Vice President Jejomar Binay to work out safe passage for the MNLF commanders and rebels in Zamboanga City who were holding civilian hostages, but President Benigno Aquino III rejected the proposal.

“Some officials who were feeling hot-headed have apparently convinced the President to reject efforts at hammering out a truce. Apparently, these officials felt the overwhelming presence of the military and the police in the area is enough to end the siege,” said the official who asked not to be named as he was not authorized to speak on the ongoing operations.

The source, however, declined to comment on whether the fatwa or religious decree issued against Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II in 2008 was a handicap in seeking a peaceful means to end the standoff.

Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said Roxas was in Zamboanga City as head of the Interior and Local Government Department and not as the senator who was persona non grata for opposing the memorandum of understanding on ancestral domain between the government and the MNLF’s rival, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

“He is the head of the DILG and a local government is affected. The Philippine National Police is also under his watch,” Lacierda said.

He added that Roxas flew to Zamboanga City “unmindful of the threats against his person.”

Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte declined to give details on the aborted truce negotiations, but acknowledged that any demand for safe conduct was not possible.

“The local crisis management committee has decided that it is futile to talk to the MNLF and negotiate,” Valte said.

“I think our answer to any demand (for a safe conduct pass in exchange for the freedom of the hostages) will be very clear. We have tried talking to them but nothing is coming out. So for us, our security forces stand ready to protect our civilians,” the Palace official added.

Valte said a calibrated response by security forces, with the safety of the civilian hostages as primary consideration, remained the best option for now.

“Our security forces have successfully contained them in those areas and they are constricting the movement of the MNLF rebels so that they will have less and less space,” she said.

Valte, however, declined to comment as to how long the President would remain in Zamboanga City.

Earlier, Binay’s spokesman, Joey Salgado, said the ceasefire did not push through because there was no cessation of hostilities.

“The terms set by Chairman Nur Misuari which were relayed to the President were not acceptable,” Salgado said.

Roxas, for his part, said police have estimated that the number of hostages has dwindled from a high of 100 to seven.

Sporadic clashes continued as soldiers moved to clear MNLF gunmen from coastal neighborhoods, with thousands more residents fleeing to safety.

As troops moved through the Santa Barbara district Sunday, the extent of the damage from seven days of fighting came into full view, with buildings reduced to smoldering heaps or pockmarked with bullet holes.

Soldiers recovered the bodies of two slain gunmen still clinging to their rifles, and several unexploded warheads for use in rocket propelled grenades had been left behind by the fleeing rebels.

In the distance, black smoke billowed from another area that had just gone up in flames.

In a nearby district, a group of soldiers could be seen crouched on the street as sniper fire whizzed just above their heads, television footage showed.

“We are continuing to press forward with our calibrated military response,” military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said.

“Fighting is continuing as we speak. They continue to resist and conduct offensive actions against us.”

Heavily armed MNLF forces entered the port city’s coastal neighborhoods Monday and took dozens of hostages in a bid to scuttle peace talks between another militant group and the government aimed at ending a decades-long rebellion in the south.

Zagala said the fighting was now concentrated in two coastal districts, while other areas were secure.

Air and sea ports remained closed Sunday in a crisis that has paralyzed the city of 1 million, seen entire neighborhoods razed to the ground, and forced tens of thousands to flee.

The local chamber of commerce said economic losses in Zamboanga, home to a major sardine canning industry, could be as much as P50 billion a day.

Zamboanga City Mayor Isabelle Climaco-Salazar described the situation as “heartbreaking and upsetting” because of the death and destruction brought about by Misuari’s “war for independence.”

The Bureau of Fire Protection said hundreds of houses, buildings and structures were being torched by the rebels in Sta. Catalina and Sta. Barbara.

On Sunday morning, the bodies of three MNLF rebels – two men and a woman – were recovered after government forces flushed out the rebels in a firefight in Sta. Barbara Elementary School.

Four MNLF rebels – two men and two women – were also captured in Sta. Catalina, the military said.

“Our operations are continuous and we’re gaining ground. We’re pushing forward to some areas they held and hopefully we will retake them soon,” Zagala said.

“We are looking into a speedy conclusion but again we don’t want to use speed as of our basis. It must be calibrated because there are hostages,” he said.

The chairwoman of the Commission on Human Rights, Loreta Ann Rosales praised government forces for giving paramount consideration to the safety of hostages.

“We congratulate [our] brave policemen and soldiers in containing [the] MNLF rampage under international humanitarian laws [and] human rights guidelines. You make us proud!” Rosales said in her Twitter account.

The Crisis Management Committee led by the mayor said four more hostages, including two children, were able to escape Sunday morning from their MNLF captors.

President Aquino was still in the city to supervise the military operations.

President Benigno Aquino III distributes food packs to soldiers in Zamboanga City Sept. 13. ( photo by John Rizle L. Saligumba)

Roxas said the President was giving orders directly to the ground commanders for calibrated operations.

Also with him are Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Emmanuel Bautista, and Philippine National Police chief Alan Purisima.

The CMC said close to 70,000 evacuees have crammed into evacuation centers, but Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said there was enough food and water for all of them.

The MNLF waged a 25-year guerrilla war for independence before signing a peace treaty in 1996 that granted limited self-rule to the south’s Muslim minority.

Misuari, who has accused the government of violating the terms of the 1996 treaty by negotiating a separate deal with a rival faction, had disappeared from public view shortly before the fighting began Monday.

The rival faction, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, is in the final stages of peace talks with Manila and is expected to take over an expanded autonomous Muslim region in the south by 2016.

Earlier, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation expressed concern over the resumption of hostilities between government forces and the MNLF.

OIC Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu at the same time condemned the killing of innocent civilians and called for calm and restraint. – With Florante S. Solmerin, Francisco Tuyay and AFP

Zambo City at standstill; no business activity yet By Anna Leah G. Estrada | Posted on September 13, 2013 at 12:16am | 1,124 views

A view of the ruins of houses gutted by a fire caused by fighting between government soldiers and Muslim rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in Zamboanga city, southern Philippines

THE ongoing clashes between government troops and forces loyal to Moro National Liberation Front founding chairman Nur Misuari in Zamboanga City has put to a standstill the business sector in the city.

Now on its fourth day and still showing no sign of letting up, the continuing firefight had forced establishments to close down, suspended air and sea travel and crippled major industries and livelihood of residents in the city.

The canning industry, for instance, was losing P33 million a day-to-day basis due to the standoff, an industry official said on Thursday.

“The on-going standoff in Zamboanga City is largely affecting the sardines cannery in the country. On a daily basis, we are losing as much as P33 million as operations stopped since Monday,” said Cezar Cruz, President of Sardines Cannery Association.

Cruz said the crisis in Zamboanga City has also affected 120,000 workers in the canning industry.

“Even though canning companies are far from the area where the standoff is, our workers are mostly living in the affected villages. People also started to ask because they are the ones who get paid on a daily basis,” Cruz said.

But Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Director Asis Perez assured the public that overall, the situation in the canning industry remains “normal.” “The situation is normal so there is nothing to worry about. We have a bumper harvest for the past months so there is enough supply. Based on our monitoring, operations canning companies did not stop because they are far from the area where the standoff is,” Perez said.

Perez said that they will continue to monitor the situation in Zamboanga, noting however that this will not affect the canning industry in the city.

Other business groups also gave assurance Thursday that the ongoing clash between the government and Muslim rebel forces in Zamboanga will not have a severe impact on major industries except for isolated cased of retrial trade disruption in the province.

“Zamboanga is more or less 900 kilometers away from Manila. Our major businesses are here and it will be geographically difficult to disrupt business transactions in major commercial cities like Manila, Cebu or even Davao City,” said Management Association of the Philippines President Melito Salazar.

Meanwhile, the Trade and Industry Department assured consumers that there is no shortage in the supply of commodities, although panic buying has been observed in some areas.

In a meeting Wednesday, the Consumer Welfare and Business Regulation Group of the Trade Department reported the retail trade in the area is slowly coming back to life.

The group noted that some establishments have started to resume operations, including the Guiwan and Sta. Cruz public markets.

Classes and work in offices, however, remained suspended on orders of the local government.

The group also noted that prices of basic and prime commodities in the conflict area remain stable as of September 10.

Gasoline stations near the conflict area remained close but there are few stations in Guiwan that are now open.

The Consumer Protection Group said that bank and ATM operations will soon resume to provide the financial needs of the consumers in Zamboanga City.

The Trade Department in Zamboanga City said that sardines manufacturers still have enough supply while manufacturers like Mega Sardines, Lucky 7 and 555 Sardines distributed canned sardines in evacuation centers.

Travel, however, remained suspended.

The Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines has announced through a NOTAM notice (notice to airman) approved by CAAP Director General William Hotchkiss, said it was suspending commercial operations of the Zamboanga International Airport to all commercial carriers until further notice.

The CAAP said that Zamboanga International Airport Aerodrome are closed and a no fly zone within 25 nautical miles radius is in effect for all commercial aircrafts except military and special government flights.

Meanwhile, Zamboanga City Mayor Isabelle Climaco-Salazar said the city government would open another evacuation center due to the rising number of residents displaced by the standoff.

The fighting has displaced at least 13,000 residents from at least six barangays. Some 3,000 evacuees are staying at the Joaquin Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex.

Donations have also started to pour in, with the United States government.

Set to donate P26.4-million or $600,000 as relief and emergency assistance.

The US Agency for International Development also donated bottled water, mats, blankets and other basic necessities.

The United Nations Team in the Philippines also sent its support and concern on the incident in a statement, even as Hong Kong was added to the list of the countries which have advised to stay away from Zamboanga City following the fierce fighting. With Othel V. Campos, Lailany P. Gomez, Jenny Ambanta, Eric Apolonio, Florante Solmerin and Sara Sussanne Fabunan

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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