ZAMBOANGA CITY , Philippines - Government forces yesterday killed at least 15 rebels during clearing operations in Barangay Sta. Catalina on the 19th day of fighting the Misuari-led faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in this city.
Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, designated spokesman for military operations here, said the Marines encountered the group of rebels hiding among the ruins of houses in Sta. Catalina, triggering the firefight.
“At least 15 were confirmed killed in that operation under the operation sector of the Marines,” Zagala said.
He said the troops believed there could be more than 20 rebels killed.
None of the soldiers were killed or wounded in the encounter.
Zagala said around 166 rebels have been killed, 186 captured and 24 surrendered while the troops suffered 23 dead and 184 wounded after nearly three weeks.
Troops also captured three rebels hiding in a septic tank in Sta. Barbara.
Government forces have suffered 23 soldiers and police killed and 184 others wounded, while at least 12 civilians were killed and 70 others wounded since the fighting broke out on Sept. 9.
The end game
Zagala said there are indications that the rebel force is becoming weaker by the day, adding that the resistance has slowed down due to lack of ammunition.
“The pocket of resistance is getting lesser and the MNLF Misuari-faction in the area is considered a defeated force and expected to surrender anytime,” Zagala said.
He said the troops are continuously removing the pockets of resistance and the last engagement was at noon yesterday.
“Our move now is to remove the threat in the area of operations,” Zagala added.
He said many of those who were captured and surrendered recently showed they have no more ammunition.
“Hungry and no ammunition, they (rebels) are defeated,” Zagala said.
Zagala also dismissed reports that the rebel force that occupied the three villages of Sta. Barbara, Sta. Catalina and Mariki has stocked ammunition and supplies, which is why the fighting lasted for more than two weeks.
Zagala said they observed the rebels were only on the defensive in the past few days.
“The MNLF were using whatever ammunition they have to delay our advance. But eventually they are no match for the Armed Forces,” he said.
The military is focused on retaking Sta. Barbara where the remainder of the rebel forces led by MNLF commander Habier Malik is holed out.
Armed Forces acting public affairs chief Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc said there was information from former hostages and rebels who surrendered that Malik was wounded.
“The report about Malik sustaining a wound came from the revelations of one of his former colleagues and the hostages. None of our soldiers saw it,” Cabunoc said.
“We want to validate this. He was reportedly hit on the hand but he is continuously fighting. He reportedly refused to surrender,” he added.
Helicopters hovered above to spot rebel forces reportedly moving in the vast mangrove areas of barangay Mariki as troops were closing in.
A naval blockade continued on the coast to prevent the rebels from escaping by sea.
On the other hand, suspected rebels blew up a bridge in Buug, Zamboanga Sibugay late Thursday. No one was reported killed or injured in the explosion and the bridge remained intact.
On the other hand, Zamboanga City Mayor Ma. Isabelle Climaco-Salazar ordered barangay officials to suspend the issuance of residence certificates or barangay clearance in the effort to prevent the rebels from merging with the community.
Salazar, as chairman of the crisis management council (CMC), ordered the continued implementation of curfew in the city.
The measures came after several rebels were caught passing themselves off as residents while the police were verifying their identities.
Troops and special police forces have killed or arrested more than a hundred rebels who occupied the coastal villages of the city after government forces foiled an attempt by the faction of MNLF chairman Nur Misuari to take control of city hall on Sept. 9.
The government is now preparing charges against Misuari and his men following the more than two-week siege of the city.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said a special team of prosecutors has finished its fact-finding probe and gathered ample evidence to include Misuari and his commanders in the charges of rebellion and violation of Republic Act 9851 (International Humanitarian Law Act).
“The MNLF leaders who are not in Zamboanga will also be charged, including Nur Misuari and other commanders,” De Lima said yesterday.
De Lima said Misuari would join the MNLF rebels who were charged by the police.
De Lima, however, did not elaborate on the exact charges that would be filed against Misuari.
But she assured Misuari that he would be given the opportunity to answer the charges in a preliminary investigation.
President Aquino earlier said Misuari would face criminal charges over the crisis in Zamboanga. -Jaime Laude, Alexis Romero, Edu Punay