Palace rules out truce gab; rebels torch buildings
THE Palace on Sunday ruled out new ceasefire talks with the Nur Misuari-led faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) as government troops pressed their attack on the rebels, who torched buildings to cover their escape after a seven-day standoff.
Dislocation. A young girl, one of thousands of evacuees affected by the standoff in Zamboanga City, feeds her younger sister inside their makeshift shelter at a sports complex; more evacuees are shown at the sports complex; soldiers aboard a Humvee stand guard amid smoke from burning houses; some evacuees sit anchored in their wooden boats near the sea wall. AFP
By Sunday afternoon, the military said the MNLF had suffered 51 dead. Another 19 were either captured or surrendered as soldiers slowly retook positions that had been overrun by the rebels. On the government side, the casualties remained at six dead and 59 wounded. At least four civilians were dead.
A source privy to the negotiations said Misuari has asked Vice President Jejomar Binay to work out safe passage for the MNLF commanders and rebels in Zamboanga City who were holding civilian hostages, but President Benigno Aquino III rejected the proposal.
“Some officials who were feeling hot-headed have apparently convinced the President to reject efforts at hammering out a truce. Apparently, these officials felt the overwhelming presence of the military and the police in the area is enough to end the siege,” said the official who asked not to be named as he was not authorized to speak on the ongoing operations.
The source, however, declined to comment on whether the fatwa or religious decree issued against Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II in 2008 was a handicap in seeking a peaceful means to end the standoff.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said Roxas was in Zamboanga City as head of the Interior and Local Government Department and not as the senator who was persona non grata for opposing the memorandum of understanding on ancestral domain between the government and the MNLF’s rival, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
“He is the head of the DILG and a local government is affected. The Philippine National Police is also under his watch,” Lacierda said.
He added that Roxas flew to Zamboanga City “unmindful of the threats against his person.”
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte declined to give details on the aborted truce negotiations, but acknowledged that any demand for safe conduct was not possible.
“The local crisis management committee has decided that it is futile to talk to the MNLF and negotiate,” Valte said.
“I think our answer to any demand (for a safe conduct pass in exchange for the freedom of the hostages) will be very clear. We have tried talking to them but nothing is coming out. So for us, our security forces stand ready to protect our civilians,” the Palace official added.
Valte said a calibrated response by security forces, with the safety of the civilian hostages as primary consideration, remained the best option for now.
“Our security forces have successfully contained them in those areas and they are constricting the movement of the MNLF rebels so that they will have less and less space,” she said.
Valte, however, declined to comment as to how long the President would remain in Zamboanga City.
Earlier, Binay’s spokesman, Joey Salgado, said the ceasefire did not push through because there was no cessation of hostilities.
“The terms set by Chairman Nur Misuari which were relayed to the President were not acceptable,” Salgado said.
Roxas, for his part, said police have estimated that the number of hostages has dwindled from a high of 100 to seven.
Sporadic clashes continued as soldiers moved to clear MNLF gunmen from coastal neighborhoods, with thousands more residents fleeing to safety.
As troops moved through the Santa Barbara district Sunday, the extent of the damage from seven days of fighting came into full view, with buildings reduced to smoldering heaps or pockmarked with bullet holes.
Soldiers recovered the bodies of two slain gunmen still clinging to their rifles, and several unexploded warheads for use in rocket propelled grenades had been left behind by the fleeing rebels.
In the distance, black smoke billowed from another area that had just gone up in flames.
In a nearby district, a group of soldiers could be seen crouched on the street as sniper fire whizzed just above their heads, television footage showed.
“We are continuing to press forward with our calibrated military response,” military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said.
“Fighting is continuing as we speak. They continue to resist and conduct offensive actions against us.”
Heavily armed MNLF forces entered the port city’s coastal neighborhoods Monday and took dozens of hostages in a bid to scuttle peace talks between another militant group and the government aimed at ending a decades-long rebellion in the south.
Zagala said the fighting was now concentrated in two coastal districts, while other areas were secure.
Air and sea ports remained closed Sunday in a crisis that has paralyzed the city of 1 million, seen entire neighborhoods razed to the ground, and forced tens of thousands to flee.
The local chamber of commerce said economic losses in Zamboanga, home to a major sardine canning industry, could be as much as P50 billion a day.
Zamboanga City Mayor Isabelle Climaco-Salazar described the situation as “heartbreaking and upsetting” because of the death and destruction brought about by Misuari’s “war for independence.”
The Bureau of Fire Protection said hundreds of houses, buildings and structures were being torched by the rebels in Sta. Catalina and Sta. Barbara.
On Sunday morning, the bodies of three MNLF rebels – two men and a woman – were recovered after government forces flushed out the rebels in a firefight in Sta. Barbara Elementary School.
Four MNLF rebels – two men and two women – were also captured in Sta. Catalina, the military said.
“Our operations are continuous and we’re gaining ground. We’re pushing forward to some areas they held and hopefully we will retake them soon,” Zagala said.
“We are looking into a speedy conclusion but again we don’t want to use speed as of our basis. It must be calibrated because there are hostages,” he said.
The chairwoman of the Commission on Human Rights, Loreta Ann Rosales praised government forces for giving paramount consideration to the safety of hostages.
“We congratulate [our] brave policemen and soldiers in containing [the] MNLF rampage under international humanitarian laws [and] human rights guidelines. You make us proud!” Rosales said in her Twitter account.
The Crisis Management Committee led by the mayor said four more hostages, including two children, were able to escape Sunday morning from their MNLF captors.
President Aquino was still in the city to supervise the military operations.
Roxas said the President was giving orders directly to the ground commanders for calibrated operations.
Also with him are Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Emmanuel Bautista, and Philippine National Police chief Alan Purisima.
The CMC said close to 70,000 evacuees have crammed into evacuation centers, but Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said there was enough food and water for all of them.
The MNLF waged a 25-year guerrilla war for independence before signing a peace treaty in 1996 that granted limited self-rule to the south’s Muslim minority.
Misuari, who has accused the government of violating the terms of the 1996 treaty by negotiating a separate deal with a rival faction, had disappeared from public view shortly before the fighting began Monday.
The rival faction, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, is in the final stages of peace talks with Manila and is expected to take over an expanded autonomous Muslim region in the south by 2016.
Earlier, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation expressed concern over the resumption of hostilities between government forces and the MNLF.
OIC Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu at the same time condemned the killing of innocent civilians and called for calm and restraint. – With Florante S. Solmerin, Francisco Tuyay and AFP