Photo shows two soldiers bumping fists after the nearly three-week standoff was declared over. AP

ZAMBOANGA CITY, SEPTEMBER 30, 2013 (PHILSTAR) With the Zamboanga City siege declared over by authorities yesterday, the hard task of rebuilding the war-torn city from the ashes has begun.

President Aquino has allotted P3.89 billion for the reconstruction of Zamboanga City, left in ruins by the fighting with the Misuari-led faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), presidential deputy spokesperson Abigail Valte said yesterday.

Valte said the government is now ready to rebuild Zamboanga City and rehabilitate its trauma-stricken residents.

Officials led by Vice President Jejomar Binay are pursuing partnerships with the private sector for housing units for civilians who lost their homes during the fighting.

Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel Roxas II said government efforts to address the tragedy in Zamboanga has begun with resuming basic services.

Interior Secretary Mar Roxas and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin enter “ground zero” in Zamboanga City and declare end of the nearly three-week siege of the city. Chino GastonBut AFP public affairs office deputy head Maj. Angelo Guzman said they are still double-checking if the body where the IDs were found is indeed that of MNLF Commander Habier Malik.

He said the Department of Education (DepEd), Commission on Higher Education and Technical Education and Skills Development Authority have initiated the reopening of schools in the city.

The Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines and the Philippine Air Force have ordered the resumption of all commercial flights to and from Zamboanga City.

The Philippine Coast Guard also allowed the resumption of sea travel to ferry the thousands of passengers who were stranded during the 19 days of fighting.

Roxas said the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of Agriculture, National Food Authority and the Bangko Sentral have ensured that raw materials, food, money and currency needed by business establishments would be available.

Roxas said the government would continue to monitor the rehabilitation efforts after President Aquino confirmed the availability of the P6.2 billion in calamity and contingency funds.

He said the rehabilitation of the city, based on the estimate of the crisis management committee and the city government, would cost around P3.8 billion.

“Normalcy is returning to Zamboanga City,” Roxas said.

Roxas though said full assistance should be extended to the 118,819 evacuees.

The gun battles, including exchanges of grenade and mortar fire, forced about 130,000 residents – more than 10 percent of the population of Zamboanga City – to flee their homes to emergency shelters, including the city’s main sports complex.

Most of them have no homes to return to since the rebels burned them to the ground in an effort to confuse government forces.

Valte said the Department of Social Welfare and Development, along with other agencies on the ground, are working to ensure the safety of the children in evacuation centers.

Valte said the DepEd has started training teachers to enable them to guide their students in light of the Zamboanga City situation.

Roxas added the conclusion of the second phase of the operation would signal the start of the rehabilitation of Zamboanga City.

‘Ground Zero’

“Mission accomplished,” Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said as he declared yesterday the first phase of the government operation to dislodge the MNLF rebels from the city was over.

Gazmin made the declaration in the village of Sta. Catalina, described as “ground zero” where the remnants of the rebel group made their last stand in fighting government forces for 19 days.

Roxas and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Emmanuel Bautista accompanied newsmen to check the extent of the destruction left by the MNLF rebels, who burned down almost everything in the village.

Ground Zero is about 40 hectares of destroyed buildings and houses. All the houses in the community were either burned by the rebels or damaged by gunfire and mortar blasts.

Gazmin said the primary military objective was to secure all the hostages and neutralize the MNLF rebel forces.

He said it would still be unsafe for residents to return to the village since government troops are still conducting clearing operations.

Phase two of the operations involved the Philippine National Police clearing up the villages that were occupied by the rebels, including Sta. Barbara, Kasanyangan, Sta. Catalina, Rio Hondo and Mariki.

The police are tasked to find booby traps or explosives in the area.

Gazmin said the military would support the police in securing the villages.

“So we are doing the room to room, house to house clearing… We are making sure that this village (Sta. Barbara) would be safe,” Gazmin said.

Gazmin also said the troops are still pursuing some two to three MNLF stragglers who might make their escape to the mangrove areas.

Gazmin said the third phase of the operation is the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the area.

This is where the local government will come in, he said.

Bautista, for his part, said government forces are pursuing splinter groups that joined the MNLF rebel forces in the attack of the city on Sept. 9.

“Organized action on the enemy part is no longer possible,” Bautista said. “There are still stragglers out there.”

AFP spokesman Brig. Gen. Domingo Tutaan told reporters in Manila that the rebels are no longer taking civilian hostages.

“The indications are that they are no longer holding any hostages,” he said.

Malacañang confirmed that all of those known to have been taken hostage were now accounted for.

“Remember that our task from day one was to ensure the safety of the hostages that were taken, to ensure their safe recovery as well as to get civilians out of harm’s way. And that has already been accomplished,” Valte said.

However, Tutaan said the military campaign was not yet over. He said some rebels are still hiding out in several districts in the city.

“There are only a few of them left,” Tutaan said. However, he warned that “if there is even one gunman left, he can still shoot and kill people.”

Tutaan declined to give a timetable for ending the fighting.

Finding Malik

Gazmin, Roxas and Bautista led the troops in raising a Philippine flag at the ruins of a three-story building in Sta. Catalina.

The bullet-peppered building was used by MNLF commander Habier Malik as a command center to direct the attack against government forces.

Troops successfully dislodged the rebels from the building but suffered casualties during the attempt.

The 19 days of fighting left 18 government troops and five policemen killed with 167 wounded.

Nine civilians were killed and 57 others wounded. A total of 195 civilians taken hostage were rescued, according to the latest military tally.

The rebels sustained 100 casualties with 223 captured. At least 52 rebels surrendered. – Roel Pareño, Jaime Laude, AP


It ain’t over in Zamboanga’ By Julie S. Alipala Inquirer Mindanao 3:05 am | Sunday, September 29th, 2013

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin. INQUIRER FILE PHOTO

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines—It ain’t over. After almost three weeks of fighting, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin on Saturday clarified the government had accomplished its mission to free all the hostages of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) but the “work is not yet over.”

In a press briefing here on Saturday, Gazmin said the government had accounted for all the hostages but had yet to complete house-to-house clearing operations 20 days after the rebels assaulted the third largest city in the Philippines and took an estimated 195 hostages.

The fighting that ensued left about 218 dead, wounded hundreds more, and sent more than 100,000 residents fleeing to evacuation centers.

The rebel assault, apparently aimed at thwarting a government peace plan with another Muslim separatist group, ground this city of more than a million residents virtually to a halt, razed 10,000 homes and reduced 30 to 40 hectares of once thriving communities to rubble.

It was one of the bloodiest and longest-running attacks by an Islamic separatist group in the south, the scene of a centuries-long Muslim rebellion for self-rule in this largely Catholic country.

Military spokesperson Ramon Zagala declared the threat to Zamboanga “over” while Gazmin and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas were televised visiting Martha Street, the scene of some of the heaviest fighting. But after Gazmin and Roxas left the area, several gunshots were heard. A fire broke out in Rio Hondo.

Leaders evade capture

Neither MNLF founder Nur Misuari nor his top commander, Habier Malik, were captured.

One report said Malik had escaped the military dragnet and had retreated to the Sulu archipelago.

“We have accounted for all the hostages,” Gazmin said, referring to this as “Phase 1” of the operation.

He said the government would now proceed to “Phase 2.” which involves the house-to-house clearing to remove possible booby traps and firearms left behind by the rebels. This could take up to two weeks, military officers said.

“The enemy is reduced to about two or three remaining stragglers,” Gazmin said.

The military would be turning over much of the city’s protection functions to the police. He added: “We will not abandon the police forces here. The AFP will continue to support the police and other local government forces,” he said in Filipino.
On Malik, Gazmin could not say if he was dead or had managed to escape. “We are searching for him among the dead,” said Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, spokesperson of the AFP.

“We are still identifying the bodies through all the tests required to confirm if Malik is one of them,” he said. He said there were 100 bodies taken from the area.

‘Bangsamoro Republik’

The MNLF forces arrived in the city on Sept. 9. They claimed they were there to march and hold a rally at Plaza Pershing, which is in front of City Hall. Fully armed, the MNLF fighters’ presence caused panic among residents, which led to skirmishes with government forces.

The MNLF forces declared a “Bangsamoro Republik” after claiming that the government had failed to fully implement the peace agreement it signed in 1996.

Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar, in an interview, said it may be over for the military, “but for us civilians it’s not yet over.”

Climaco-Salazar said it will take about a week or two before areas can be declared safe.

“In fact, we are seeking guidance and clearance so we can go back to city hall and work,” the mayor told the Inquirer.

Salazar also asked: “Where is Malik? I have been questioning them on where is Malik.”

The mayor also urged the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) to do its job “and ensure no more of this kind of crisis will happen in Zamboanga.”

On Friday night, Climaco lambasted the OPAPP for supposedly not acting on the problem that led to what was happening in her city.

Continuous dialogue

“There should be continuous negotiations and dialogue and it should never end. Sad to note, there is no presence of the OPAPP. They should be here to openly dialogue and they should continue even beyond this crisis,” the mayor said.

In an earlier interview, Climaco-Salazar told the Inquirer that OPAPP did not heed calls to go to Sulu to meet with Misuari who had long been complaining about the government reneging on the peace agreement.

Chief Insp. Ariel Huesca, spokesperson of the police in Western Mindanao, said that as of noon Saturday, their records showed that a total of 18 soldiers and five policemen had been killed in the fighting.

Over 183 rebels and 12 civilians were also reported killed.

Huesca said 167 soldiers and 14 policemen were wounded. Among civilians, 72 were reported wounded, police said.
Police have also processed a total of 184 former hostages, Huesca said.

On the MNLF side, Huesca said, a total of 167 fighters were killed while 247 were captured.

He added that only 24 MNLF forces were considered surrenderers—those who gave up to Senior Supt. Jose Chiquito Malayo, the city police director, on Sept. 17.

Abigail Valte, a President Aquino spokesperson said government aid agencies would now focus on preparing residents to return to their communities after the police pull out.

“We have allotted money for shelter assistance for the families whose homes have been totally destroyed or totally burned down,” she said. With AFP, AP reports

Zamboanga City mayor: From novice to warrior By Nikko Dizon, Julie S. Alipala Inquirer Mindanao 2:30 am | Sunday, September 29th, 2013 213

MAYOR IN CHARGE Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle “Beng” Climaco-Salazar helps evacuees at Joaquin Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex in Zamboanga City. EDWIN BACASMAS

Before she became a politician, Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar was a Carmelite novice, a guidance counselor and a teacher.

But on Sept. 9, she found herself becoming a warrior—although without a gun—to defend her city from a band of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels, some disgruntled over their peace agreement with the government, others simply lured by money.

For three weeks, the mayor, popularly known here as Beng Climaco, had to show strength and composure to assure her constituents that the nightmare that fell on their city would soon end.

Zamboanga City woke up on Saturday with government’s top security officials declaring that the three-week crisis was over as all the remaining hostages have been rescued. The hunt for MNLF commander Habier Malik, a loyalist of the rebel group’s founding chair Nur Misuari and leader of the siege, has begun.

The guns may be silent now but Climaco, 48, has her work cut out for her: to rally Zamboangenos into rebuilding their broken city.

It was on Day 13 of the siege that the Inquirer spoke to Climaco in her deserted office in the hundred-year-old City Hall, located at the downtown area not far from the coastal villages where fierce fighting was taking place.

The city government has begun to identify temporary relocation sites for the thousands of displaced residents and eventually, permanent ones.

Under a “Build Up Better Program,” Climaco said houses worth P100,000 each would be built for the residents who lost their homes in the conflict.

“We’ve already tasked the city planner to make a landscape for this and also put a military installation permanently,” Climaco said.

The P3.8-billion rehabilitation package earmarked by President Benigno Aquino III for Zamboanga rests on the shoulders of its leaders, primarily Climaco.

‘Woman’s touch’

The mayor’s friend, Maguindanao Rep. Bai Sandra Sema, said Climaco’s leadership style has a “woman’s touch.”
“She’s very sweet but she’s strong, diligent and systematic. It’s like how you would plan for your household. She identifies right away what is needed the most,” Sema said.

Before politics beckoned, the mayor entered the convent for two years but later decided that her real calling was to become a teacher and a guidance counselor.

She taught English and religion at Ateneo de Zamboanga, and was a guidance counselor as well. Two of her students were children of Misuari.

In her brief talk with Misuari at the height of the siege, Climaco recalled the Moro leader raising his voice at her. “He softened a little after I told him that I was a guidance counselor of his children,” Climaco said.

At 43, Climaco married retired Gen. Trifonio Salazar, choosing Feb. 28 as her wedding date. It was the birthday of her late uncle, Cesar Climaco, the tough, motorcycle-riding mayor of Zamboanga City who refused to cut his white hair until martial law was lifted.

To their relatives, the two Mayor Climacos had so much in common.

Cesar would go around in a motorcycle, without bodyguards. Beng does not own designer bags or shoes, and will not mind shopping in an “ukay-ukay” (used clothes) market, a niece said.

At times, Climaco could be “fearless to a fault” like her uncle. She could disregard her personal safety at times. She gives a personal touch to her leadership, like her uncle.

“I don’t want to defend my husband. It was really … we were overpowered,” Climaco said about the talk that there was a failure of intelligence on the part of government. Salazar is the director general of the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA).

Her husband has been helping her deal with the crisis, she said. But the tactical operations were left in the hands of the security forces.

Climaco was heavily criticized in the local media for her alleged failure to preempt the crisis.

A few days before, she was at the SM Mall of Asia for the launch of the city’s tourism campaign “Zoom in Zamboanga.” On Sept. 7, she quietly celebrated her birthday with a dinner with her family in Manila. She returned to Zamboanga City on Sunday, and learned about the siege at around 5:15 a.m. on Monday.

Some of the hostages who were released vented their anger at her. She later learned that they had been brainwashed by the rebels into believing that she and the government had abandoned them. The debriefing and counseling by social workers opened the minds of the hostages to the real story.

800,000 lives

There are the lives of 800,000 people to think about, Climaco said, referring to the city’s population.

Climaco said there were relatives of some of the hostages who came to her and told her they were willing to sacrifice their family for the rest of the city. Climaco’s staff members, most of whom were her former students at Ateneo, told the Inquirer that the only time the mayor broke down was when she met with the city council and they all found out the identities of the hostages.

“There were responses of selflessness and courage but this is only from the perspective of those with freedom. But in the minds of the 20 (still captives of the MNLF at that time), if you empathize with them, you can hear them say, ‘We need you most at this time, you should not let us down,’” Climaco said.

There was a heated debate on what to do, what choice to make. Climaco praised President Aquino for making a stubborn stand: Save the hostages at all cost.

“When I look back, I know that I will never regret that decision,” she said.

Climaco said she regains strength “from the people I serve.”

Suffering from asthma, the mayor said she missed her shots that should have reduced her sensitivity to allergy triggers but she needs to be strong.

Her longest sleep since the crisis began on Sept. 9 was five hours. But she is not complaining. She said her health is “no match” to what the people of her city are experiencing now.

First debriefing

She had her “first debriefing” on Friday from a Department of Health team.

“It’s good that I managed to bring out my emotions. It’s ironic because I was a guidance counselor before,” she said.
“Maybe the media would see this as drama, but deep inside me I was really hurt by what had happened to the Joemie Ando,” she said.

Ando is the 2-year-old boy who died after having been hit by a bullet in the head while being held captive by the MNLF forces in Barangay Santa Catalina.

Her grandchildren in Manila have been giving her a much needed boost. They regularly call her, saying: “Lola, don’t worry, it will be over. Lola, are you OK? When I visit Zamboanga, I will shout at all the bad guys there.”

Climaco became an instant grandmother when she married Salazar, a widower, in 2009.

Michael Saavedra, a staff of Climaco, sees the mayor as strong even in the face of crisis.

“When I first called her up at dawn of Sept. 9, after Col. (Jose Chiquito) Malayo reported the incident, the mayor was calm and quick in instructing me to announce the suspension of classes and work,” Saavedra said.

“There were very few instances when she was impatient. She was generally calm throughout the crisis. I don’t think she has slept over two hours per day since this started,” Saavedra said.

The mayor said the city loses P344 million daily as a consequence of the crisis.

“That amount and the cost can be recalibrated once we are into normalcy. What I cannot accept is the loss of lives of innocent people and we still have 21 hostages down there,” she said.

As of yesterday, the Department of Social Welfare and Development has reported a total 118,819 people displaced by the fighting.

The military lost a dozen of soldiers and more than a hundred wounded. Three policemen were also killed in the fighting.
“Every day, I wake up physically drained. I pray and I know God would not give me a trial I cannot bear,” she said.

While Zamboanga City’s local economy has lost an estimated P5 billion in the three-week crisis, Climaco is optimistic that the city will recover its losses.

“The Zamboangueños are peace-loving, fun-loving and warm people,” said Climaco, who cried with the freed hostages and those who lost their loved ones in the fighting. “They don’t deserve this.”

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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