NO TO ‘INDEPENDENT’ STATE No one will take the Philippine flag from the city’s people, says Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar of the flag in front of the statue of Jose Rizal at City Hall, a symbol of the city’s refusal to yield to the “independent” state that the MNLF wants to establish in the region. EDWIN BACASMAS

MANILA, SEPTEMBER 23, 2013 (INQUIRER) By Nikko Dizon - The Philippine flag flies from the top of a 15-meter pole in a courtyard in front of the Zamboanga City Hall, overlooking deserted streets in the commercial district here called “pueblo,” now guarded by heavily armed security forces and volunteers.

The flag is noticeably new and its red and blue are still bright. But the flag is torn at one end because of flapping in strong winds—continuously for the last two weeks.

Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar told the Inquirer on Saturday that the Philippine flag has not been brought down since Moro rebels stormed into coastal villages in Zamboanga on Sept. 9 with a plan to march into the city and hoist their flag at City Hall.

Government security forces intercepted the rebels on the coast, foiling their plan to take Zamboanga City for their “independent Bangsamoro Republik.”

Keeping the Philippine flag up day and night, Salazar explained, is the city’s way of showing that it will never allow any other flag to fly at City Hall.

No one will take the Philippine flag from the city’s people, Salazar said.

Why Zamboanga

But Salazar wondered why Nur Misuari, leader of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels holed up on the coast, had chosen Zamboanga City to plant his Bangsamoro standard.

Zamboanga City is not even part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), she said.

After decades of fighting for a separate Muslim state in Mindanao, the MNLF signed a final peace agreement with the government in 1996.

Since then, the MNLF has fragmented into factions, with the largest group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) breaking away and going on to talk peace with the government.

In October last year, the government and the MILF signed a preliminary peace agreement that would establish a new, expanded and autonomous Muslim region in Mindanao.

The two sides hope to sign a final peace agreement before President Aquino’s term ends in 2016, but Misuari opposes a separate peace deal with the MILF, insisting on full implementation of the 1996 agreement with the MNLF.

Feeling ignored, Misuari declared an “independent Bangsamoro Republik” in July and appointed himself chief of the Bangsamoro armed forces.

Invasion of Zamboanga

On Sept. 9, about 200 of his followers swept into coastal villages in Zamboanga City to raise the Bangsamoro standard. They took over coastal villages and took dozens of villagers as hostages and used them as human shields to thwart a military assault.

Fighting between state security forces and the rebels has been going on since, leaving more than 100 people dead, dozens wounded and shutting down the city.

Salazar said Misuari’s strategy made sense because hitting Zamboanga City meant hitting Mindanao hard.

The city is the trade hub in Western Mindanao. “Supplies that embark in our airports and pier are taken to Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi as well,” Salazar said.

‘Bleeding daily’

In the two weeks of fighting between the government forces and Misuari’s followers, the city has lost P4.34 billion in trade and commerce, twice the city government’s annual budget, Salazar said.

Citing figures from the National Statistical Coordinating Board, Salazar said the city’s losses amounted to P344 million a day, including lost earnings of banks and commercial establishments.

“We are bleeding daily, but we are very resilient. We will recover,” Salazar said.

She said the “greatest damage” done to the city was hurting what she called the “human economy.”

Hundreds of the city’s residents are daily wage earners, she explained. For nearly three weeks now, many of them have not worked because the fighting has shut down businesses in the city.

Calibrated response

Fighting between security forces and Misuari’s followers continued for a 13th day on Saturday, as the military pressed a “calibrated” offensive to crush the remaining rebels and free some 20 more hostages.|

A “calibrated” military and police operation has cut down the rebel force to 30 to 40 men.

The state security forces have also boxed Misuari’s followers in a 3-to-7-hectare area on the coast, and Mr. Aquino has called on them to surrender to avoid further bloodshed.

Most of the hostages have either escaped or been rescued during the military-police operations.

On Saturday, five more rebels and a 71-year-old woman were killed and two soldiers wounded in the fighting.

As of Saturday, the military said 102 MNLF rebels and 12 soldiers and three policemen had been killed, while more than 100 gunmen were captured or surrendered.

One hundred-ten soldiers, 13 policemen, 69 civilians and nine rebels have been wounded.

At least 12 civilians had been killed, including 71-year-old Norma Lladores whose home in Tetuan village was hit by rebel mortar fire on Saturday morning.

Insp. Elmer Acuna, Tetuan police station chief, said Lladores was one of the residents who cooked meals for the thousands of people who had been displaced by the fighting and sheltered at evacuation centers in the city.

Military spokesperson Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said only about 30 to 40 remaining gunmen holding about 21 hostages were engaged in sporadic fighting with troops.

“We’re doing house-to-house search operations today and their area of operation has become smaller,” he said.

The rebels’ return fire was no longer heavy, Zagala said, adding that it was an indication that the insurgents were running out of ammunition.

Zagala noted that as government troops delivered volume fire on the rebels’ positions, the insurgents countered with sniper fire.

“They are trading space for time,” Zagala said. “But we have the momentum.”

Zagala said the authorities believed the rebels’ leader, Habier Malik, was still in the area.

“We believe he is still here. Our data show that he is here,” Zagala said. With reports Julie S. Alipala, Inquirer Mindanao and AFP

Raps filed vs 4 MNLF leaders, 25 others By Cecille Suerte Felipe (The Philippine Star) | Updated September 22, 2013 - 12:00am 10 57 googleplus1 2

In this Malacañang handout photo, President Aquino meets with Secretaries Mar Roxas and Voltaire Gazmin, PNP chief Director General Alan Purisima, AFP chief Gen. Emmanuel Bautista, Western Mindanao Command chief Gen. Rey Ardo and other military officers in Zamboanga City yesterday.

MANILA, Philippines - Charges of rebellion and violation of human rights were filed on Friday against four leaders of a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) that laid siege in Zamboanga City for two weeks, leaving scores dead and thousands of people homeless.

Authorities filed charges of rebellion and crimes against International Humanitarian Law under Republic Act 9851 with the prosecutor’s office in Zamboanga City against Habier Malik, Asamin Hussin, Bas Arki and Handji Ami Adjirin, all ranking MNLF leaders now being hunted by authorities.

Police also charged 25 other rebels who were captured or who surrendered during the fighting. The case was docketed as IX-INO-06-inq 131-00377.

Senior Superintendent Edgar Danao, chief of the regional police Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG), said they used as evidence the confession of other MNLF rebels detailing how the attack on Zamboanga City was planned.

Malacañang said the investigation into the Zamboanga City caper of the MNLF faction will also include possible financiers or other backers.

“Maybe we will see that in the coming days... We know that the President has ordered an investigation into the incident,” deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said.

There have been questions on how the MNLF faction of Nur Misuari managed to sneak in heavy firearms and ammunition into Zamboanga City and who possibly financed them.

President Aquino earlier said they received reports that the firearms and ammunition were gradually brought inside Zamboanga City over a period of one year as the siege was being planned.

The President also said the evidence on Misuari’s involvement in the siege was becoming clearer, especially after he cancelled a meeting in Indonesia for the review of the implementation of the 1996 peace agreement between the government and the MNLF.

Aquino said he wanted the charges against Misuari to be airtight so he could not escape from responsibility again in case he really masterminded the siege to sabotage the ongoing peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

There are suspicions that groups or personalities also do not want the peace process with the MILF to succeed. Other groups may want to humiliate the Aquino administration in general.

But Valte said they could not speculate on such motives.

She said the focus of the government right now is to drive out the rebels to ensure the safety of civilians and bring back normalcy in Zamboanga City.

“Moving forward, we will see in the investigation if the (MNLF) forces received help from other people or other groups,” Valte said.

Fighting continues

The intense gunbattle between government forces and the MNLF rebels in Zamboanga continued on its 13th day with increasing civilian casualties.

The number of civilians killed in the conflict increased to 52 with the death of an elderly woman and three others in separate incidents.

A mortar round hit a residential building yesterday, killing an elderly woman in a village more than a kilometer from where government forces are engaged in a gunbattle with MNLF rebel forces.

The military said the wayward mortar round hit the second floor of the building owned by Norma Lladones in Barangay Tetuan of this city.

Lladones, 71, died instantly from the explosion that also destroyed the entire second floor of the three-story residential building.

The other day, a bomb exploded inside a passenger bus, killing three people in Barangay Labuan several kilometers away from the city proper.

Authorities suspected the rebels are launching diversionary attacks to ease the pressure from government forces against the MNLF.

The government sustained 10 casualties while the number of the wounded also increased to 123 yesterday.

Policemen killed in the fighting remain at three, with 13 others wounded.

The troops, however, killed six more rebels, bringing to 98 the total casualties of the MNLF.

“A total of 174 civilian hostages were also rescued,” Maj. Angelo de Guzman, assistant information chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, added.

The fighting has displaced more than 100,000 people who fled from their homes and are now staying at evacuation centers.

Most of the evacuees have no place to return to since their homes were razed by the rebels, who also took dozens of civilians as hostages.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), meanwhile, expressed concern over the plight of the thousands of children affected by the armed conflict.

“We condemn in the strongest terms any action undertaken in conflict situations that violates children’s rights. Children have a right to special protection under international law, and every measure must be taken to ensure their protection,” UNICEF Philippine representative Tomoo Hozumi said.

UNICEF called on the government to take active measures to prevent the outbreak of diseases in the evacuation areas and provide special care for the children caught in the conflict. – Aurea Calica, Jaime Laude, Roel Pareño, Rhodina Villanueva

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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