Security forces walk past debris scattered on a street after rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) clashed with government troops in Zamboanga City on Monday. MNLF forces tried to take over the city and raise their flag at the city hall but were prevented by government forces. Photo: Reuters
MANILA (6th UPDATE) – At least 4 people were killed and 14 others were wounded following skirmishes between government troops and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels.
Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco said the fatalities include one policeman, one navy personnel and 2 civilians.
"More casualties are reported on the enemy side," she said after convening the city's crisis management committee.
She revised her earlier statement that said the fighting has killed 6 people and left 24 others injured.
Climaco, in a statement Monday night, said the MNLF rebels were holding at least 87 people hostage in Kasanyangan, 20 at the Sta. Catalina mosque, 20 at the Talon-talon mosque, 10 in Camacop Sta. Barbara, and an undetermined number of people at the SDK building and the Fernandez store in Lustre.
Senior Superintendent Wilben Mayor, Philippine National Police spokesperson, earlier said the civilians in Kasanyangan were merely trapped in the ongoing gunfight.
Climaco lamented that the hostage victims were being used as "human shields" by the MNLF rebels who arrived in the city as early as Sunday evening.
"Their main quest is to declare independence in Zamboanga. This is a non-ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) territory. We are calling a crisis committee in a while.," Climaco told ANC.
"The police and military in the city's stand is, if ever there are men in uniform, they have to be apprehended because we only recognize one Philippine Army and Philippine National Police."
Residents flee homes
Climaco said over 2,000 people have fled their homes since violence erupted last night.
"As of now, per record from the City Social Welfare Office, there are 174 families with 1,099 individuals housed at Tetuan Parish, 50 families with 200 individuals at Tetuan Central School, 25 families with 115 individuals at ICAS-Tetuan, 231 families with 1,071 individuals at the grandstand as of 3:30 pm today," she said.
Barangay Rio Hondo residents said the MNLF troops began arriving in the area Sunday morning and started a buildup of forces later in the evening.
Barangay Rio Hondo councilman Jinnul Malik said some 40 unarmed MNLF troops in civilian clothes arrived in the area as early as 10 a.m. on Sunday.
Superintendent Juanito Vaño, Zamboanga Peninsula Police director, said 11 MNLF rebels have already been arrested.
Scattered gunfights were still taking place as of posting time.
Vaño said the police are being careful in engaging the rebels in order to avoid getting more civilians hurt in the firefight.
Due to the ongoing siege, Climaco announced the suspension of classes in all levels in the city. Isabela City, Basilan Mayor Cherilyn Santos Akbar also announced suspension of class and work in the city.
Businesses in the city, including bank operations, were also affected. All flights to and from Zamboanga City have been cancelled.
MNLF denies 'attack'
In an interview with dzMM, MNLF spokesperson Emmanuel Fontanilla confirmed that the rebels involved in the crisis were members of the separatist group.
Fontanilla said the rebels who arrived in Zamboanga City were supposed to serve as "advance forces" who will escort MNLF chairman Nur Misuari during his visit in the city.
"Ang plano sana is for the chairman to peacefully go around Mindanao to consult the people tungkol sa declaration of independence without resulting to any violence," Fontanilla told dzMM.
"Ang pinaaabot sa pamahalaan na ito ay mapayapang pamamaraan patungo sa deklarasyon ng independence at ito ay gagabayan ng United Nations."
Misuari recently declared independence for Palawan, Zamboanga Peninsula, Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-tawi, and even Sabah and Sarawak, which are controlled by Malaysia. He called it a "peaceful revolution."
The declaration of independence came amid the MNLF's condemnation of the peace pact between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The MNLF argues that the government must not abandon the tripartite review of its 1996 final peace agreement just to accommodate the Framework Agreement for Bangsamoro (FAB) of the MILF.
The MILF is a breakaway faction of the MNLF.
"It would be very prudent for the OIC (Organization of the Islamic Cooperation) to intervene on this matter. Baka ubos ang Mindanao natin. Kung walang mabibilis ang kamay sa trigger, ito ay 'di mangyayari. Eh baka mayroong mga mabibilis sa trigger, kasi pwede namang i-hold natin, o ipakita ang white flag at mag-clarify bago magkaroon ng engkwentro. Baka lahat ng forces mainit," Fontanilla said.
The peace committee of the OIC, a group which is comprised of representatives from several Muslim states, acted as the third-party facilitator in the review of the 1996 peace pact between the MNLF and the Philippine government.
The OIC's peace committee's participation in the tripartite review was recently terminated by the Philippine government. The MNLF is a member of the OIC and Misuari holds a seat during the committee's meetings and assemblies.
Fontanilla said Misuari was hurt when he learned the Palace told the OIC, in an explanatory note, that he is no longer the sole representative of the Bangsamoro. He said the MNLF has already sought the help of the United Nations.
MILF wants 'peaceful rally'
Fontanilla reiterated that MNLF troops will continue to hold their ground and roam the city.
"Sana mayroong third party na pumasok dito at mayroon naman tayong ceasefire mechanism. I hope this would be availed before anything else [happens.] Hindi kami nananakot, pero kapag nagsimula ito, ewan ko po, mas grabe ito sa 1972. This will be more than that of 1972," he said.
"Sana ito'y mapagtuunan ng pansin para huwag lumaki ang problema."
In a separate interview on ANC, Fontanilla claimed that the MNLF only wanted to conduct a "peaceful rally" in the city but ended up being "harassed" by government forces.
The military admitted that the MNLF recently conducted a rally in Davao City and no incident of violence was reported.
Climaco, for her part, said the city is not buying the MNLF's claim that the troops were only in the city to peacefully declare independence.
"I think the main goal is to simply stage, not to take over the city hall; for them to hoist their flag and declare their independence from the national government in Zamboanga City because of its strategic location," Climaco said.
"That is what they allegedly say - that they are here to 'peacefully express independence' but it is logically unacceptable because they will use arms. We are trying to prevent civilians from being involved."
Palace condemns attack
The Palace, meanwhile, said it condemns the violence that is besetting the city.
"We condemn the attack on Zamboanga City in the strongest possible terms. It is incumbent on all people of goodwill to reject the violence that has erupted," Presidential Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said in a statement.
"The ongoing attack of armed individuals in Zamboanga City, including initial reports of the possible use of civilians as human shields, is a cause for great concern. The authorities are responding to the situation in a manner that will reduce the risk to innocent civilians and restore peace and order to Zamboanga City at the soonest possible time."
Lacierda said President Aquino is being briefed on the situation and is receiving updates from time to time.
He appealed to the citizens to stop spreading wrong information which "will only help those intent on disrupting the lives of residents of Zamboanga City."