MANILA, Philippines - President Aquino told Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels yesterday that they still have the chance to choose between war or peace, and the government would deal with them accordingly.
Aquino, emerging from seclusion in the city, said it was not too late for the rebels to surrender and talk peace with the government, or the military operations would continue to end the siege.
On the 11th day of the crisis, gunfight between government forces and the rebels continued, leaving an Army officer dead and three of his men wounded.
The Army officer was shot by a sniper as he led his men in clearing operations in Barangay Sta. Barbara, one of the villages in Zamboanga City still occupied by rebels.
Amid reports that rebel reinforcements had arrived from Sulu, Aquino said the strength of the MNLF fighters had been significantly diminished by sustained military operations.
“To the remaining forces of our enemies, life is important to me, you might want to check if your lives are also valuable to you. And it’s not too late to reduce death or injuries, which is now in your hands,” Aquino said before reporters at the Zamboanga International Airport yesterday.
Aquino came out and greeted passengers at the airport, which resumed operations yesterday after being shut down due to the crisis.
Questions on his whereabouts cropped up since he flew there last Friday and his last public appearance was on Saturday.
Aquino explained he decided to personally oversee the operations to ensure early resolution of the crisis.
“I am both commander-in-chief and the President, therefore, at the end of the day, everything is my responsibility, so I am very involved – from everything to getting briefed and putting some of my inputs into the security operations,” he said.
The President said he wanted to be clear to the MNLF faction of its founding chairman, Nur Misuari, that there were other groups who disapproved of their course of action in the apparent attempt to get government’s attention as they felt sidelined in the ongoing peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Aquino stressed the public must always be reminded that other MNLF factions have condemned the group of Misuari from the very beginning.
“So, our policy is, those who are ready to talk peace and engage in dialogue, we will really face and encourage. Those who will put the people in danger will also be really dealt with by the state,” he said.
Despite the strong military operations against the rebel faction, Aquino said he did not want the peace process with the mainstream MNLF to stop.
“It is up to them (Misuari’s group) where they want to go. We are ready to talk peace, but we are ready to act if they put the people at risk,” he said.
Aquino said the government would want “permanent peace” and order and would not allow those sowing terror to continue doing so.
He said a review of the implementation of the 1996 peace agreement with the MNLF had been set in Indonesia but Misuari and his group canceled this.
Aquino said these developments were solid evidence that Misuari was behind the siege of Zamboanga.
“He (Misuari) was supposed to be one of those that would talk in Indonesia but he changed his track. Of course, we will have the appropriate reaction to that,” Aquino said.
Aquino said Misuari is sending mixed signals by his “posturing,” which he said was difficult to understand.
Aquino noted Misuari had been claiming he wanted peace but declared “independence” and a supposedly peaceful rally in Zamboanga City became a siege.
He said it would appear that Misuari’s group tried to “push the envelope” and test the limits or tolerance of the government, but they should know by now that the use of force would be dealt with force.
No short cuts
The MNLF signed a peace treaty in 1996 that allowed the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), and Misuari became its first governor.
Misuari, however, has been angered by a planned peace deal with the MILF, believing it would sideline the MNLF and the 1996 peace deal.
He disappeared from public view shortly before the fighting broke out in Zamboanga but earlier led the group in declaring independence from the government.
Misuari then deployed his men to plant an independence flag at the Zamboanga city hall, but they were prevented by government troops.
This eventually led to the crisis where the rebels seized hundreds of civilians as hostages while burning down their houses.
Government troops, however, have recaptured most of the villages that were occupied by the rebel forces since the fighting broke out on Sept. 9.
The military said it would not take long before the crisis would be over as Misuari’s forces are getting depleted.
Aquino assured the public that he was bent on resolving the siege soon but would not take short cuts to prevent the incident from recurring.
“How can we say that it won’t happen again? Number one, we’ve diminished their forces. Number two, we demonstrated what government means when we say that we are prepared to respond to whatever challenges confront us,” Aquino said.
“If they think that they can match the government’s force, they are wrong. I believe we demonstrated the government’s strength and that we are ready to use it. Those who are planning to launch similar attacks, you better think twice,” he warned.
Aquino, however, stressed the lives of the hostages were of paramount importance and the end of the siege would depend on government’s ability to gather intelligence information as well as other factors to ensure their safety.
“So that is the first priority. If the ones present there are all enemies, that’s a different issue altogether. But there are hostages still,” he said.
“We will try to end the crisis immediately,” he added.
Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, the designated spokesman for the military ground operations, added the MNLF rebels are still holding some 20 civilian hostages.
Aquino though gave assurance the government had the upper hand in constricting the movements of the dwindling number of rebel forces.
The end game
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesman Brig. Gen. Domingo Tutaan Jr. said there are now an estimated 70 rebels still holding out in Sta. Barbara and nearby villages.
“We see that our efforts are gaining ground, we believe and we’re optimistic that this will be resolved immediately and we think we can do this in the nearest point in time,” Tutaan said.
He added the AFP is now confirming field reports that 15 MNLF rebels have surrendered to the police with their firearms in Sta. Barbara.
Tutaan though could not specify when the crisis, which has displaced more than 100,000 people, would end. He, nevertheless, admitted that clearing operations could take time, as this would involve house-to-house searches.
“We are still trying to ensure that we can be able to address this without casualties from the civilian sector,” Tutaan said.
Tutaan said the troops are now sustaining the clearing operations in the areas still being held by the rebels.
The clearing operations resulted in a firefight with the rebels with an Army officer, initially identified as 1Lt. Christopher Rama, getting killed by a sniper.
Rama’s death raised the total number of military casualties to 12 soldiers dead, 108 wounded. Three policemen were also killed while 12 others were wounded in the fighting already on its 11th day.
On the enemy side, Tutaan said 86 MNLF rebels were killed while 93 were either captured or have surrendered.
Excluded from the list of rebel fatalities were eight who were killed in the fighting that broke out in barangays Sta. Barbara and Sta. Catalina yesterday.
“Two MNLF rebels were killed by our troops in an encounter in Sta. Barbara at about 11:30 a.m., while six other rebels were killed in Sta. Catalina in the fighting at about 3:30 p.m.,” said Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc, acting AFP Public Affairs Office chief.
Some of the MNLF recruits, according to Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, are students who are on drugs.
As the military sustained its clearing operations, two fires broke out in barangays Sta. Barbara and Rio Hondo. These villages have become the stronghold of the rebels.
As this developed, the rebels have reportedly succeeded in deploying additional fighters with the arrival of reinforcements Monday evening in Zamboanga City, sources in the intelligence community revealed.
The group, numbering some 100 fighters, was part of the 8,000-strong force that the MNLF has assembled in Talipao, Sulu since last month.
MNLF spokesman Emmanuel Fontanilla, however, said in a text message to reporters that 700 of their fighters have landed in Zamboanga City to reinforce their comrades. – Jaime Laude, Roel Pareño, Alexis Romero