The standoff in Zamboanga City, which had spread to Basilan since Thursday, entered its fifth day with both the government and the rebels’ sides firing threats and warnings, while staying firm on their respective positions.
The continuing standoff resulted in more casualties and more evacuees in both Zamboanga City and Lamitan City, where the combined forces loyal to MNLF founding chairman Nur Misuari, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the extremist Abu Sayyaf Group had tried to take over.
President Aquino arrives at Camp Navarro to check the condition of wounded soldiers and to assess the situation
President Benigno Aquino III, who flew to Zamboanga City on Friday, “to assess the situation,” delivered his sternest warning as he vowed to come down hard on the rebels.
“If they increase the danger facing the innocent people, if they cross the lines that must not be crossed, we will be obliged to show the strength of our state, and use the strength of the state against them,” the President said.
But Misuari spokesman Absalom Cerveza said the MNLF rebels would fight to the end, as he admitted that they went to Zamboanga City “to wage a war and seize control of the city” after their leader (Misuari) declared “independence” on August 12 in Sulu.
“’Yung impression na nagpunta sila roon para sa isang peace caravan, hindi totoo ‘yun. This is a war for independence!” Cerveza said in a radio interview.
His statement refuted the claim by another MNLF spokesman, lawyer Emmanuel Fontanilla, who said that the MNLF rebels were in Zamboanga City to conduct a “peaceful campaign” to promote their aspirations.
Red Cross personnel run for cover after a mortar shell fell nearby as wounded soldiers lie on the pavement
“If you win in the war, you will gain your independence. So it happened. MNLF followed this track to gain its independence,” said Cerveza.
Cerveza said that Misuari was leaving the decision to his men in Zamboanga to decide what to do.
“Malayo ako. May ground commander ako dun at bahala sila. I have given them the freedom to decide,” Cerveza said, quoting Misuari who confirmed that he had talked with Zamboanga City Mayor Isabelle Climaco-Salazar on Thursday.
Misuari told Cerveza that Climaco was crying over the phone as she appealed to Misuari to end the crisis in the city.
Cervezs, meanwhile, said the combined forces of the MNLF, BIFF and the ASG in Basilan is a ‘loose’ group, but said that “divisions are dissolved when faced by a common cause.”
The Department of Social Welfare and Development, meanwhile, reported that the number of evacuees has reached 24,000 individuals as of late Friday, as officials from both cities decided to forcibly evacuate residents in the affected areas.
Residents board a truck as they are transported to a safer place.
Aquino declined to give any deadline on the government’s response to the crisis, but said there is a “decision point” as to when the government will authorize a military offensive.
“There will be no deadline, but there will be a decision point. If they harm the hostages, we already have instructions to our security forces on what to do in the eventuality,” Aquino said.
Government forces had been battling at least 180 Moro National Liberation Front rebels since Monday, and on Thursday, expanded their operation in Basilan, where a combined MNLF-BIFF and ASG fighters had massed up, apparently in support of the MNLF fighters in Zamboanga.
At least 22 individuals had been killed and 52 wounded in five days of fighting, while 19 of the gunmen have either surrendered or been captured, military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala said.
Officials said nearly 200 Zamboanga residents were seized as hostages and are being used as human shields by the rebels, who have also set fire to parts of the six coastal barangays.
An overview of the houses gutted by fire at the height of the fighting.
Government forces had moved into those areas to prevent more destruction, Zagala said.
In Bgy. Santa Barbara, government troops entered a school and a mosque vacated by MNLF fighters, where soldiers recovered the corpses of at least two suspected rebels.
Clashes were also reported in Santa Catalina, which triggered a fire.
Chief Inspector Ariel Huesca, a police spokesman, said the number of the gunmen were “shrinking”. He added that the “the soldiers are moving closer to the MNLF so as to limit the movements of the MNLF.”
Military spokesman Brigadier General Domingo Tutaan, for his part, said that “we envision that there will be a peaceful result to this with the armed men laying down their arms and releasing the civilians.”
Aquino said the military and police forces were ordered to brace for potential “sympathetic attacks, diversionary attacks and opportunistic attacks” by other armed groups in the region.
The city government, meanwhile, passed an ordinance late Thursday ordering the mandatory evacuation of the six conflict areas, municipal spokeswoman Sheila Covarubias said.
A large convoy of trucks, jeeps and motorised tricycles were later seen leaving the area, carrying hundreds of civilians.
Police checked their identification papers to make sure no rebels slipped out.
Meanwhile, Aquino said the Justice Department is currently investigating the Zamboanga City attack and would try to come up with a strong case against Misuari and his men.
Aquino said that in early 2000, cases were filed against Misuari but were dismissed because of lack of evidence.
He said his administration doesn’t want to commit similar mistakes and wants to ensure that anyone responsible in the Zamboanga City mayhem will be held accountable.
The military briefed the President on the ongoing military operation in the city.
Aquino later distributed goods to military personnel, including 4,000 bottles of Gatorade, vitamins, cell cards and chocolate bars.
In Basilan, government forces thwarted the attempts by combined forces of the Misuari-led MNLF, the BIFF and ASG to enter the Lamitan City proper, the military said.
Col. Carlito Galvez, commander of the Army’s 104th Infantry Brigade, said the bandits and rebels were drove away and pursued by troops from the 18th Infantry Battalion and 9th Scout Ranger Company.
He said the attempt happened at around 9 a.m. that resulted to sporadic fighting.
Galvez said they “stabilized the situation” by around 9:55 a.m.
“The firefight started at around 9 o’clock between our troops and around 100 rebels and bandits composed of MNLF, BIFF and ASG at the pier area.
Galvez said intelligence reports showed that rebels and bandits wants to seize control over a vital installation in the city proper.
“They are resolute [to seize control] here but we will defend Lamitan City especially the civilians,” he said.
Galvez also confirmed the forced evacuations implemented in some remote areas in Lamitan City to secure civilians from being harassed or maybe being killed by the rebels and bandits.
After the firefight, the Philippine launched air strikes against the rebels’ position in Bgy. Colonia.
The AFP said in its Twitter account that the air strike was launched at 10 a.m. Friday. Local officials said they had already conducted force evacuation prior to the air strike.
Lamitan City Vice Mayor Oric Furigay said at least 200 families have been evacuated. With Francisco Tuyay and AFP, PNA