Standoff enters 3rd day with sporadic firefights
Fierce fighting between forces loyal to Moro National Liberation Front founding chairman Nur Misuari and government troops continued on the third day of the standoff Wednesday, forcing nearly 13,000 residents to flee their homes in the five barangays in Zamboanga City where the rebels had holed up since Monday.
The Crisis Management Committee led by Zamboanga City Mayor Isabelle Climaco-Salazar said that the total number of evacuees totaled 3,159 families, or 12,907 individuals.
The bulk of the evacuees, the CMC said, were crammed inside the Joaquin F. Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex, while the rest took shelter in schools and churches.
Dislocation. From top clockwise: Residents living along the coast in Zamboanga City near the area of a standoff between the military and MNLF rebels evacuate the boulevards to escape the conflict; residents believed to be hostages appeal to the military not to shoot; soldiers take cover from MNLF snipers; some city residents take shelter at a sports complex. AFP
Department of Social Welfare and Development personnel, who are taking care of the refugees, said that at least 5,000 residents arrived at the sports complex overnight.
Wednesdays’ clashes, the third in as many days since early Monday, were mostly confined in two barangays – Bgy. Sta. Catalina and Barbara.
But government forces admitted that it was difficult to attack the rebels’ position because the MNLF forces were using the residents as “human shields.”
Explosions and sounds of automatic gunfires were heard in the two barangays early Wednesday, while sporadic clashes also took place in the heavily-populated outskirts of Zamboanga City, as government troops battled rebels who tried to enter the city.
In Bgy. San Roque, which is located near the Zamboanga City airport and only three kilometers away from the city’s financial district, a group of MNLF rebels fired at military aircrafts which were conducting reconnaissance flights over the city to monitor the movement of the rebels, according to Brig. Gen. Nick Vivar, head of the Air Force in Mindanao.
Vivar made his report in a meeting presided by Mayor Salazar and Interior and Local Secretary Mar Roxas.
The military said the rebels also launched two separate mortar fire at the Fort Del Pilar pier and at the State Marine Science and Technology.
“We continue to condemn the acts of the MNLF against the peace-loving people in Zamboanga City by attempting to control the city but failed,” Roxas said.
Roxas also dismissed claims by Misuari spokesman Absalom Cerveza that the MILF had already sent reinforcement to their beleaguered comrades.
“Wala kaming nakakalap na intelligence report na nakapag-reinforce anf MNLF sa Zamboanga City,” he said, echoing a statement made by Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, who had said that there were no reports of any reinforcement from MNLF followers of Misuari from as far as Sulu, Basilan and other provinces.
Roxas added that their latest monitoring indicate that there are only 60 to 70 hostages remaining at the hands of the rebels.
After three days, the standoff had so far left 12 people dead and 21 injured. including a Navyman and two policmen and two civilians, military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said.
The latest fatality was an MNLF gunman whose body was recovered in one of the areas where the gunmen are holed up, Zagala told a television interview.
Salazar said that efforts to negotiate with the rebel’s leader, Habier Malik, are still ongoing.
“Our main priority really is the safety of all the hostages. The military should come in and try to secure the hostages and defend the city from further intrusion,” she added.
The police, meanwhile, said they were able to intercept a separate group of MNLF rebels who tried to enter Barangay Canelar in Zamboanga City.
The CMC said it received a report that the rebels suffered two casualties when they engaged the police in a firefight.
The CMC said the casualties belonged to a group of “more or less 8-10 rebels who tried to engage the police in a firefight at a checkpoint.
“Two MNLF members were confirmed shot by the police. Others are being pursued. Operations ongoing in the area,” the CMC said, but added that the police have yet to give an official report on the incident.
In another development, Sulu commander Col. Jose Johriel Cenabre denied that a grenade explosion in Suulu was connected to the crisis in Zamboanga City.
“No, it was just a grenade explosion lobbed by a still unidentified person not in his right mind against a motorcycle.”
Cenabre said the incident happened in the vicinity of the provincial capitol at around 5:30 p.m.
No one was hurt from the explosion.
As this developed, Malacañang has ruled out any military action to end the three-day standoff in Zamboanga City.
Presidential peace adviser Teresita Deles said the volume of soldiers and policemen in Zamboanga City were there to make sure the standoff does not spill over to other neighboring areas.
“Our government is very conscious of the civilians that are going to be affected,” Deles said.
Deles disclosed that a team has already been formed in the Department of Justice to look into the possibility of filing charges against Misuari and his supporters.
The siege began four weeks after MNLF founder Nur Misuari declared “independence” for Mindanao. He later urged his followers to overtake government installations.
The MNLF ended a 25-year rebellion with a 1996 peace treaty, but Misuari’s faction laid a similar deadly siege on Zamboanga in 2001 that led to his imprisonment until 2008, when all charges against him were dropped.
Salazar, meanwhile, urged owners of businesses, banks and other establishment to resume their operations despite the ongoing conflict. With Florante Solmerin , Joyce Pangco-Pañares and AFP