‘War is not yet over’

- Roel Pareño -
ZAMBOANGA CITY — Armed stragglers loyal to jailed Gov. Nur Misuari opened fire at soldiers doing clean-up operations at a government complex at dawn yesterday, barely a day after a hostage crisis here was seemingly resolved.

"This war is not yet over," Lt. Gen. Roy Cimatu, Armed Forces Southern Command chief, could only mutter as 30 Misuari loyalists attacked troops in the complex of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in Barangay Cabatangan here.

The troops were searching for booby traps in the sprawling ARMM center when the stragglers, who were left behind after their comrades agreed to evacuate the place Wednesday, fired at the soldiers with automatic weapons and tried to drive them out.

Cimatu said no soldier was wounded and that he did not know of any guerrilla casualties in the brief clash around dawn on the outskirts of this city.

"Soldiers are still pursuing the gunmen and we will not allow them to take new hostages or escape this time," he said.

Cimatu said the stragglers were the last of more than 300 partisans of Misuari who had occupied the Cabatangan complex last week after the renegade governor led a failed revolt in Jolo, Sulu in the runup to last Monday’s ARMM elections.

"The troops have continued their pursuit to clear the complex of any threat," Cimatu said.

The stragglers must have split off from the main group when they evacuated the complex and fled to a nearby hill, he added.

Cimatu said Army ordnance experts have defused a dozen bombs and are still searching for more inside the Cabatangan complex and adjacent buildings.

Early Tuesday morning, Misuari’s followers refused military orders to leave the Cabatangan complex and started fighting, later taking at least 110 hostages.

The hostages were released in batches late Tuesday and Wednesday for safe passage to a Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) camp in the outskirts of the city.

President Arroyo ordered Cimatu yesterday to ensure that the siege on the ARMM center in Cabatangan and the ensuing hostage-taking would not happen again.

"We will have to make sure that it won’t happen again," she said. "That’s part of what General Cimatu has to plan in his tactical operations so that it won’t happen again."

Presidential Spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao said yesterday charges of illegal detention and illegal possession of firearms will be filed in court against leaders of Misuari partisans that took over the ARMM center and seized the civilian hostages, who they used as human shields.

"I was informed that the AFP and the PNP are preparing the charges, and warrants of arrest will be issued quite soon by the judge and these charges vary from illegal possession of firearms to illegal detention," he said.

"We want to isolate the leaders who knew what they were doing, from the rank and file who could be the authorized security forces of the MNLF who think they were just following orders of their leaders. Not all of them will be charged," the spokesman said.

Tiglao said Misuari, who is detained in Malaysia, will also be charged in court in connection with the siege on Cabatangan, which was led by one of his nephews.

"The government has witnesses pointing to Misuari as the one who led the Nov. 19 attack on a military camp in Jolo," he said.

Tiglao said the end of the hostage situation at Cabatangan Wednesday was the "last hurrah" that Misuari partisans could ever launch against the government.

"We’re very happy that this very volatile situation was defused immediately," he said. "The reports that came to us were that most of those who joined (Misuari) were mainly his relatives."

Misuari’s partisans are disorganized and on the retreat but are eyeing to launch terrorist attacks on commercial centers in Metro Manila, according to Chief Superintendent Crescencio Maralit, spokesman for the Philippine National Police.

"I don’t think they can do such thing in Metro Manila," he said. "It’s a very remote possibility. But we are always in the lookout for any eventuality."

Maralit said followers of Misuari should think twice before setting out on any illegal activity nationwide as their leader has already abandoned them.

Besides, it’s difficult for Misuari partisans to penetrate the strict security measures in Metro Manila, he added.

Meanwhile, Social Welfare and Development Secretary Corazon Soliman told reporters yesterday the 89 hostages freed Wednesday have undergone stress-debriefing.

"The debriefing sessions are vital as most of the former hostages had shown symptoms of severe shock and trauma as a result of the more than day-long ordeal in the hands of their captors," she said.

Soliman said a woman victim continued to be hysterical even after she had already been freed from captivity for several hours.

"The trauma of sporadic fighting breaking out in their community and then being taken hostage made some of the victims lose hope," she said.

Soliman said the social welfare department in Region IX is focusing its relief operations in Cabatangan following the siege and hostage-taking incident.

"The relief operations are still underway," she said. "Relief goods are continuously being supplied to evacuation centers set up to house those rendered homeless by the fighting."– With reports from Rainier Allan Ronda, Marichu Villanueva, Paolo Romero, Jess Diaz, Jaime Laude











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