PNoy STILL IN ZAMBO: WHY ARE THEY NOT RUNNING OUT OF BULLETS?



LINING UP FOR SHELTER: Residents displaced by fighting between gov’t troops and MNLF rebels join a long queue to get into an evacuation center at a sports complex in Zamboanga City on Friday, the 12th day of the urban warfare. EDWIN BACASMAS

MANILA, SEPTEMBER 23, 2013 (INQUIRER) By TJ Burgonio, Julie S. Alipala Inquirer Mindanao - Wondering why Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels occupying coastal villages in Zamboanga City were still fighting after 12 days, President Benigno Aquino III on Friday ordered military officials to find out who was supplying ammunition to the insurgents.

The President spent a seventh day monitoring from an undisclosed place the final military offensive to crush 30 to 40 rebels holding 20 hostages on the Zamboanga coast.

“They don’t seem to run out of [ammunition]. He has asked [military] officials to look into that,” deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte told reporters in Malacañang.

“They came prepared,” military spokesperson Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala told reporters in Zamboanga City, answering the same question as the President’s.

There were reports that the rebels stockpiled weapons and ammunition in Zamboanga City long before the MNLF force led by Habier Malik stormed ashore early on Sept. 9.

But Zagala said it was “only a matter of time” before the rebels run out of ammunition.

Civilian supporters

A 14-year-old boy who was rescued from his MNLF captors in Santa Catalina village on Thursday told the Inquirer that the rebels got additional supplies of ammunition from their civilian supporters.

The boy (whose name the Inquirer is withholding because he is a minor) said there were times when MNLF commanders directed their men to take some of the hostages, preferably young ones, and leave the village to get firearms and ammunition.

“They got firearms and ammunition from the villages of Talon-Talon and Taluksangay,” the boy said in Bisaya.

The boy was rescued in the company of a suspected MNLF rebel who claimed he was a hostage and his name was Wilfredo Ramirez.

Col. Jemar Johnson Aseron, commander of the 32nd Infantry Battalion, said he checked the list of hostages and found that Ramirez was 67 years old, while the suspected rebel was in his 30s.

“We immediately separated the boy and he admitted that his companion was a rebel,” Aseron said.

Medicines, too

Freed hostage Maricel Teves, who was wounded in captivity, said the rebels also had medicines and they treated her.
“They have supplies (of medicines),” Teves said.

She said the rebels knew the area, moving around the villages of Santa Catalina, Santa Barbara, Kasanyangan and Rio Hondo.

“They said they planned this a long time ago and that their firearms were already in these areas,” Teves said.

She said she had heard Paul Aukasa, an MNLF member from Basilan province, say that the group planned the attack even before the monthlong feast of Ramadan (July 10 to Aug. 9).

Support in villages

Former hostage Junior Morte, 60, said the MNLF rebels conserved their ammunition.

“They don’t shoot because they have to. They shoot if the need arises and if they need to defend or protect their position,” Morte said.

“I’ve seen how they deploy snipers, and they wait while the other side (military) is delivering heavy fire on their position,” he said.

Morte said Malik had “maps and contacts in the villages.”

He said Malik had bragged to the hostages that his group had support in the villages of Rio Hondo, Mariki, Talon-Talon and Mampang and that he and his men had enough food and ammunition.

Morte, who escaped from the rebels on Sept. 13, said the MNLF fighters did not carry boxes of ammunition.
“They just go to the houses where they left their supplies,” he said.

Down in number

After 12 days of fighting, government security forces have whittled down the number of the Moro rebels from 200 to a small band boxed in a 3-to-7-hectare area on the Zamboanga coast.

Zagala said on Friday the government troops were going after 40 MNLF fighters.

In a talk with reporters on Thursday, President Aquino called on the remaining rebels to surrender to prevent further bloodshed.

“Life is precious to me,” Mr. Aquino said, addressing the rebel holdouts. “You may want to consider your life precious as well.”

Mr. Aquino gave the rebels from Nur Misuari’s faction of the MNLF an ultimatum.

“It is not too late to end this, so we can put a stop to the deaths and injuries. That is in your hands,” the President said.

Fighting to death

But the remaining followers of Misuari in Zamboanga City reportedly have decided to fight to death.

Sulu-based university professor Octavio Dinampo said Friday that Malik had sent text messages to other MNLF leaders saying he and his men would no longer withdraw and would “make Zamboanga their graveyard,” as the “losses to fellow Muslims and everyone else” were their responsibility and they should “answer for all of it with their lives.”

Dinampo said an MNLF friend passed the message to him around 3 p.m. on Friday.

In that message, Malik said he would surrender only if Misuari told him to do so, Dinampo said.

Dinampo said Malik, an Amir (religious leader), claimed to have performed a ritual among his remaining fighters.
“They prefer to die as martyrs in a place where they are now stuck,” Dinampo told the Inquirer by phone.

He did not say where that place was.

20 remaining hostages

Fighting continued in Zamboanga City on Friday. Two soldiers were wounded in fighting in Santa Barbara village, while two civilians were hit in a crossfire in Santa Catalina village, the military said.

Twelve days of fighting left 92 rebels, 12 soldiers, three policemen and seven civilians dead.

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

The fighting has displaced 118,819 people who are now sheltered in 57 evacuation centers in Zamboanga City and other safe places on the Zamboanga Peninsula.

Six rebels surrendered on Thursday, the military said, bringing to 72 the number of Misuari’s followers who have either surrendered or been captured.

Misuari’s followers seized about 200 civilians when they stormed into five coastal villages on Sept. 9.

One hundred seventy eight of those hostages have either escaped or were rescued. One was killed in the crossfire between the rebels and the government troops.

Twenty remain in the hands of the cornered rebels.

Abandoned by the Navy

Friday, Narabelle Bue, spokesperson for the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) in the region, said the agency would send food to evacuees on Tigbaon Island, two hours by boat from mainland Zamboanga.

The evacuees are residents of Mampang village, where government troops battled MNLF rebels on Tuesday.

The residents fled the village in boats but were intercepted by the BRP Bacolod of the Philippine Navy.

They said the Navy sailors ordered them to board the Bacolod, tied the hands of the men with rope and made them wait to be interrogated.

On Wednesday, instead of bringing the evacuees to an evacuation center in Zamboanga City, the Navy took them to Tigbaon Island and left them there.

One of the evacuees had been sending text messages to the Inquirer, saying there was no food on the island.

The Inquirer informed the DSWD about the evacuees’ situation on Friday and the agency said it would send food to them. With a report from AP

RELATED STORY:
Gov’t seeks probe into MNLF ammunition supply


First posted 6:08 pm | Friday, September 20th, 2013

Hostage recalls terror with Misuari men By Julie S. Alipala Inquirer Mindanao 12:00 am | Sunday, September 22nd, 2013 113


MORTE. Photo by JULIE S. ALIPALA

Zamboanga City—Defying an order from his leader Habier Malik, a Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) gunman fired a shot at soldiers at the height of negotiations for a ceasefire in the village of Santa Catalina on Friday afternoon. That error resulted in a failure to free the hostages and in the loss of lives.

“This saboteur rebel fired the first shot, which made Malik mad. We were all supposed to be freed that Friday afternoon but this rebel started shooting at the soldiers,” Junior Santander Morte, 60, a lumberyard owner who escaped from his captors on Saturday, told the Inquirer.

Morte was grazed by a .50 cal. bullet on the forehead and was grazed by another bullet in the left armpit during the fighting.

Morte said that at 2 p.m. on Friday, he and more than 230 other hostages were told to form a human barricade (six lines with about 40 hostages in a line) on Lustre Street, about 100 meters from the military position.

“Soldiers on the ground and soldiers in the armored vehicles kept firing but they did not hit us,” Morte said.

“We were like waves. When the soldiers fired, we ducked one way all at the same time. When that side was hit, we ducked to the other side. When somebody said ‘sit’ or ‘hit the dirt,’ all of us followed,” he said.

As the soldiers and the rebels exchanged fire, “the women and the children cried and begged for the shooting to stop,” Morte added.

Around 3 p.m., some MNLF commanders called up their contacts in the government, asking for a ceasefire to clear the way for the release of wounded hostages, he said.

The hostages were told to continue to form a human barricade while they await the ceasefire, he said.

“But it seemed the soldiers were unaware of the negotiations because they were shooting at the barricade,” Morte said.

A teenage boy was hit in the left arm.

“The other hostages bound his wound,” Morte said.

A 2-year-old child was hit in the head.

“Poor child. The mother pleaded for a halt to the shooting so that the human barricade could leave Lustre,” Morte said.

Around 5 p.m., Malik ordered all the hostages to move back, positioning them some 170 m from the government forces.
Morte said Malik and Ismael Dasta, an MNLF commander from Basilan, resumed calling their contacts in the government to get help for the wounded hostages.

Minutes later, lights from the armored personnel carriers started to flash, giving hope to the hostages who thought they were to be freed.

Morte said Malik started to embrace the hostages, apologizing for what had happened.

Pal Aukasa, one of the MNLF rebels, also cried as he embraced the hostages his group had held since Sept. 9.

“He was crying and asking the hostages for forgiveness. He told them he would understand if they were angry with him,” Morte said.

As the hostages started to move toward the government troops, a Moro fighter fired at the soldiers.

The soldiers fired back and soon there was an intense exchange of fire. Some MNLF forces pulled back the hostages and took them to a mosque in nearby Santa Barbara village.

Morte was one of the 38 hostages held by Dasta’s group and he was among the captives taken to Santa Barbara.

In Santa Barbara, Morte saw a bigger number of Moro rebels—at least 300, including women—led by Malik.

Malik was holding at least 200 hostages, Morte said. “There were many teenagers. They were students,” Morte said.

Morte said the male students were assigned to prepare food for the hostages. The female hostages were ordered to look after the elderly, the sick and the children.

Morte said young MNLF fighters ransacked stores and shops for food, medicines and personal-care stuff.

“But those were not enough because there were so many of us,” he said.

Morte also said the MNLF fighters did not start the burning of houses.

“They’re not crazy. If they did that, the military would know our location,” he said.

But because of the burning of houses and stores, they ran short of food, he said.

“We ate rice that had been soaked in water,” he said.

After the botched release of hostages on Friday, Morte said he went to one of the houses to rest.

Perhaps due to exhaustion, he said, he slept and woke up on Saturday afternoon amid heavy fighting.

It was then that he learned that most of the MNLF rebels and their hostages had moved to Rio Hondo village.
Inside the house, he waited for the shooting to stop.

“When the shooting subsided, I ran for it, heading toward the military position,” he said.

Along the way, he saw three bodies sprawled on the street—two of the hostages and that of the MNLF fighter who defied Malik’s ceasefire order.

But Morte’s ordeal was not yet over.

“The soldiers shouted, ‘Raise your hands!’ I did. ‘Sit down!’ I sat down. ‘On the ground, one your belly!’ I obeyed. ‘Crawl!’ I crawled until I got to them. And then they stripped me,” Morte said.

“I thought I was already free, but they laughed at me. I told them I was grazed with a .50 cal. bullet on the forehead and I had another wound in my armpit. They said I should have been dead,” he said.

Instead of taking him to hospital, Morte said, he was taken to a room where he was interrogated.

He was later taken to the police contingent nearby who interrogated him.

He said neighbors and relatives vouched for him, telling the authorities that he was a resident.

Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, spokesperson for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said Morte’s allegations would be investigated.

“At the height of that crisis, it’s really hard to determine where the bullets were coming from. But what is important is that the safety of the civilians is the primary concern of our troops, and we never have any intention of bringing harm to innocent people,” Zagala told the Inquirer by phone.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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