MNLF claims getting reinforcements; firefight resumes
Surrounded by government forces, an estimated 100 Moro National Liberation Front rebels holed up in five barangays in Zamboanga City declared on Tuesday that they were ready to dig in and would fight “until the last man.”
Lawyer Emmanuel Fontanilla and MNLF Peace Panel Head Absalom Cerveza, both claiming to be speaking in behalf of the Nur Misuari-led MNLF faction, said the rebels, led by Commander Kaber Malik, were prepared to hold their ground against government troops led by an elite military force of 1,500.
Stalemate in Zamboanga. From top clockwise: Soldiers walk beside an armored personnel carrier as they take positions during their standoff with MNLF gunmen in Zamboanga City; soldiers get to position near an area where MNLF fighters are holding out and using residents as human shields; an injured soldier is shown after being hit by shrapnel near an MNLF position. AFP
“Our forces will stay where they are. They are on a defensive posture,” said Fontanilla, who added that Misuari’s instruction to his men was to “maintain defensive posture.”
“They are decided to die,” Fontanilla added.
Cerveza, for his part, said Malik told him in a message that they do not intend to surrender. “No surrender. They will stay put and ready to die for a cause,” Cerveza said.
“They are warriors, when they go to war, they expect to become martyrs,” he added.
Armed with high-powered weapons, including a B-50 anti-tank, M-60 machineguns, Russian AK-47, and Belgian armalite rifles, the rebels had occupied barangays Sta. Barbara, Sta Catalina, Talon-Talon, Mariqui and Rio Hondo since Monday after a failed attempt to take over Zamboanga’s City Hall.
On early Tuesaday, the rebels traded gunfires with government troops while using 180 residents from the five barangays as “human shields.”
But Interior and Local Government Secretary that as of late Tuesday, government troops have ‘stabilized’ the situation.
“The security forces... have stabilized the situation. It has been contained and isolated and won’t spread to other areas,” Roxas told reporters in a joint press briefing with Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Emmanuel Bautista and Zamboanga City Mayor Isabelle Climaco-Salazar.
Reyes, Gazmin and Bautista are in the city to help local officials and military commanders resolve the ongoing crisis.
Roxas and Salazar said that they were willing to negotiate with the rebels for the release of all the hostages.
Roxas said trained hostage negotiators from the Philippine National Police were already assigned with the Crisis Management Committee led by Salazar.
This was confirmed by Salazar, who added that she had asked the MNLF rebels for the unconditional safe release of all the hostages after reports reached the CMC indicated that some of the rebels expressed their desire to negotiate.
“Locally, there are various talks being held. We are seeking to validate bona fides of those presenting themselves as mediators,” Roxas said.
While the residents in the five barangays were described as “hostages” Roxas said it appeared that they could be free to leave if they wished.
“It appears that what happened is not hostage-taking but more of them being turned into human shields by the MNLF forces who entered their communities. People are free to get in and out of there, they are not bound, they are not detained,” he said.
“Whether they are hostages or not is still being validated.”
The rebels landed by boat and poured into the fishing villages on Monday before mounting an assault on Zamboanga City, causing panic in the city of nearly one million people.
Zamboanga City is also home to the main headquarters of the military’s Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) where hundreds of American servicemen were currently deployed.
Misuari, who could not be reached by AFP nor by government negotiators, had earlier declared “independence” for Mindanao and called on his followers to take over government installations.
Roxas said Misuari was last seen moving between Sulu and Basilan, but did not indicate the day of the sighting.
President Benigno Aquino, speaking to reporters in Manila, refused to set a deadline for resolving the crisis.
“We can’t be giving deadlines when what we want to ensure is that no more civilians are affected, hurt or killed,” he said.
The attack on Monday killed four people and left 14 injured, Roxas and Salazar said, contrary to a report from the Mayor’s office that there were six dead and 24 wounded.
About 1,500 elite troops backed by a smaller number of police have surrounded the area to hold the gunmen in place and prevent the arrival of potential rebel reinforcements, he told AFP.
On Monday, Cerveza claimed that 10,000 rebels would travel to Zamboanga to reinforce Malik’s group. He went on to claim Tuesday that the reinforcements are already in Zamboanga and that a large group of MNLF rebels are now massing up in Barangays Calarian and Malaguta where the WesCom is located.
But Gazmin said government forces “were able to intercept” other MNLF forces who had been on their way to Zamboanga. He gave no details.
The fighting has displaced about 1,500 residents of the mainly Muslim communities in the city.
Misuari has criticized a preliminary peace deal signed last year by the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which split from the MNLF in 1978.
He said the agreement marginalized his group and a peace treaty that it signed in 1996.
The gunmen launched their attack as the government prepared to resume peace talks with the MILF, aimed at ending a 42-year-old rebellion that has claimed 150,000 lives.
Meanwhile, Australia and United States have issued travel advisory to their citizens advising them to suspend travel to the Zamboanga region in the light of the ongoing clashes between government forces and the MNLF. With Florante Solmerin and AFP