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Zamboanga crisis: Nur men surrounded

Jaime Laude - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines -Even as dozens of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fighters have remained holed up in some Zamboanga City towns with their hostages, government troopers are holding off offensive operations to give way to negotiations and prevent further bloodshed.

This was according to Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesman, who said security forces have surrounded some 180 MNLF fighters entrenched in barangays Sta. Catalina, Talon-Talon and Sta. Barbara.

“At the moment the AFP is standing down to pave the way for possible negotiation. This is being done by the crisis monitoring committee. We want to assure everyone that we are doing whatever we can to ensure that there will be a peaceful resolution to the crisis,” Zagala said.

Intelligence reports showed that in Barangay Talon-Talon, a certain commander Ugong and 30 followers were holding 20 civilian hostages.

Another group of around 18 MNLF gunmen led by a certain Asahim Hussein was reportedly providing support to Ugong’s group.

In Barangay Sta. Barbara, some 80 to 90 gunmen led by Sulu-based MNLF commander Habier Malik were holed up with 20 civilian hostages.

Malik’s group was reportedly being backed up by another band of 30 rebels holding 80 civilian hostages.

In the nearby barangay Sta. Catalina, MNLF leader Ismael Dasta and 80 men were keeping 36 hostages.

 â€œThese coastal villages fronting Basilan are known enclaves of MNLF integrees and their families. The number of the MNLF fighters there could easily increase to more than a thousand if attacked by ground troops,” a former Zamboanga-based senior intelligence officer who declined to be named said. The villages are thickly populated where unlicensed firearms – many high-powered – are in abundance, he said.

“Most of the residents in these villages, if not MNLF integrees, are close relatives. A military option to resolve the two-day standoff would be bloody. The military and police leadership in Zamboanga should know this,” he said.

He said the only solution to the standoff is to “allow the MNLF rebels a peaceful withdrawal from these areas.”

An assault, he added, would only lead to an escalation of the crisis.

Philippine Navy spokesman Lt. Commander Gregory Fabic said four multi-purpose attack craft, two patrol gunboats and a diesel fast boat had been deployed along Zamboanga’s coastlines to conduct patrols.

Capt. Michael Mortel of the Marines’ Jolo-based 2nd Infantry Brigade said MNLF forces were being deployed to help their trapped comrades.

“We are ready to hold them from proceeding to Jolo. If they will do so, we will disarm them; if they shoot at us, we will have no option but to defend our position,” he said.

 

‘Defensive posture’

 

MNLF spokesman Emmanuel Fontanilla stressed a military offensive would only worsen the situation and proposed that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the United Nations (UN) be allowed to intervene.

“Our forces will stay where they are. They are on a defensive posture,” he told radio dzMM.

He said that instead of sending the military to fight the rebels, the government should follow the terms of the 1996 treaty with the Muslim group by bringing the rebels’ grievances to a mediation committee chaired by the OIC.

The MNLF rebels seized scores more hostages and traded gunfire with troops yesterday, the second day of the crisis.

The rebels, followers of MNLF founding chairman Nur Misuari, seized 20 hostages at the start of the crisis, but Zamboanga Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar said they were now holding 170 people in the villages where they are holed up.

The initial attack killed four people and left 14 injured, the mayor told reporters, reducing the toll from Monday when she said there were six dead and 24 wounded, and giving no explanation for the revision.

“What we are seeing is that they are being used as human shields,” Salazar said in an interview with ABS-CBN television.

“We are working for the release of the hostages and a peaceful resolution of this problem,” she added.

About 1,500 elite troops backed by a smaller number of police have blocked off the area to hold the gunmen in place and prevent the arrival of potential rebel reinforcements, Zagala said.

“At the moment, our priority is the safety and security of the hostages and the city,” Zagala said, adding that yesterday’s firefight had died down and there were no further casualties.

“If the time comes to change the mission, we will adjust accordingly,” he said without elaborating.

The followers of Misuari poured into the fishing villages from the sea on Monday before mounting an assault on Zamboanga, causing panic in the city of nearly one million people.

Misuari, who could not be reached for comment, has declared “independence” for a large part of Mindanao and called on his followers to besiege government installations.

Negotiators were now trying to convince the gunmen to release the hostages, said Muktar Muarip, a local Muslim community leader in talks with the rebels.

He said the gunmen had released four women and a child in the early hours of Tuesday, but that they were holding dozens of others inside mosques.

“They forced us to go with them last night, saying they did not know the way,” one of the released women, Merceditas Asinon, told reporters after she was freed unharmed before dawn.

One of the hostages was a Roman Catholic priest, but it was not immediately clear which group was holding him.

Archdiocese of Zamboanga administrator Monsignor Chris Manongas said Monsignor Arnold dela Serna, vicar-general of the Archdiocese, narrowly escaped the rebels. Manongas did not reveal the identity of the priest in rebel hands for security reasons.

The fresh hostilities came as the government was preparing to resume peace talks with the MILF, aimed at ending a 42-year-old rebellion that has claimed 150,000 lives.

It was the second such attack on Zamboanga since 2001, when Misuari’s men also took dozens of hostages and left many more dead.

While curfew remains in effect, Mayor Salazar said city government operations are back to normal today except in places directly affected by the hostilities.

Classes in all levels remain suspended.

Salazar also urged business establishments to resume operations.

“We likewise appeal to business establishments to ensure that prices of commodities remain stable. The buying public is also advised not to resort to panic buying but purchase provisions enough for the day to prevent shortage of supplies,” Salazar said.

Meanwhile, Health Secretary Enrique Ona said that hospitals in the city are on Code Blue Alert, meaning they should make sure that they have enough medical and surgical supplies. 

“I have given instruction that if they do not have enough or they run out of supplies, they should get from the private sector for augmentation,” he said. “All doctors should also report for duty, they have to be ready to be called anytime,” he said.

The Department of Social Welfare and Development said almost 3,000 families have been displaced by the clashes between soldiers and MNLF gunmen.

The displaced families were staying at the city grandstand, Tetuan Church, Tetuan Elementary School, Mampang Elementary School, Talon-Talon National High School, and at the Department of Public Works and Highways compound. With Alexis Romero, Rainier Allan Ronda, Sheila Crisostomo, Roel Pareño, John Unson, Edith Regalado, AP

 

 

ARCHDIOCESE OF ZAMBOANGA

ARMED FORCES OF THE PHILIPPINES

ASAHIM HUSSEIN

HOSTAGES

MISUARI

MNLF

REBELS

SALAZAR

ZAGALA

ZAMBOANGA

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