ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines – President Aquino yesterday called on security forces to prepare for a protracted battle against members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) still occupying some villages in the city on the 12th day of fighting.
Aquino told police and military unit commanders to be patient and execute a “well thought out” operation against the hold-out rebel force.
The military said it was still running after an estimated 50 heavily armed MNLF rebels holding 20 civilian hostages.
Reports said the rebels have split into smaller groups with their respective hostages.
Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II said Aquino had a meeting with security advisers Thursday night following a briefing with Cabinet officials.
Aquino, during the meeting with the security commanders, told them to be patient, Roxas said.
Aquino told security officials that neither boredom nor their frustration with the rebels should obscure their plans.
“The President has reminded them that all moves must be well thought out and because this is what is needed and not because of boredom or because of frustrations, just because the operations have been dragging for too long,” Roxas said.
He said the President wanted to ensure that in this kind of operation, mission patience should prevail to avoid casualties.
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) vice chief Lt. Gen. Alan Luga said the military operations in the city have been calibrated to avoid civilian casualties.
Luga told the Senate yesterday that the siege in Zamboanga would have ended earlier if not for the rebels taking civilians as human shields.
AFP spokesman Brig. Gen. Domingo Tutaan Jr. also said the military operations would have cleared out the entire area occupied by the rebels in one or two days if only there had been no hostages in rebel hands.
“But the order was protect the civilians, so we couldn’t do the usual doctrinal things that a soldier does. What we have is a calibrated response,” Tutaan said.
The 12 days of clashes have already claimed 113 lives, 172 wounded with 111 rebels either captured or have surrendered, while 172 civilian hostages have been rescued.
Of the 113 fatalities in the 12-day fighting in the city, 10 were soldiers, three policemen, eight civilians and 92 rebels.
Maj. Angelo Guzman, assistant chief of AFP’s Public Affairs Office (PAO), said 111 soldiers and 13 policemen were wounded. A total of 48 civilians were also wounded in the crossfire.
Guzman said the ongoing clearing up operations has resulted in the capture of 72 rebels and the surrender of 39 others.
The casualties are expected to further increase for as long as the rebels led by MNLF commander Habier Malik are holding out in the area.
According to military estimates, some 200 to 300 rebels led by Malik were involved in the Zamboanga siege but as the fighting dragged on for almost two weeks now, dozens of them could have already escaped by posing as civilian evacuees.
Even the military could not know exactly where Malik is, but Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, AFP-PAO chief and spokesman for ground operations here, said the rebel commander is still within the area of operations and leading the pocket of resistance against government troops.
On the other hand, MNLF founding chairman Nur Misuari has cut off communications with his followers.
Sources said Misuari deliberately severed communication lines to his men to prevent government forces from locating him.
The rebel force, however, suffered more casualties with four of their gunmen killed by government forces, while two soldiers were wounded in the latest gunfight in barangay Sta. Barbara yesterday.
The village is among the areas still held by the rebels loyal to Misuari.
Zagala said the troops encountered what remained of the group led by Malik.
The 12 days of fighting also displaced close to 119,000 civilians who were moved to several evacuation centers.
Officials have yet to determine the exact figure of damage to properties brought by the fires set off by the rebels that razed hundreds of houses.
The military, on the other hand, continued to declare the area of operations in Sta. Barbara as a “red zone,” meaning it is critical due to the presence of the remaining rebel force.
The Philippine Navy, for its part, deployed BRP Gregorio del Pilar as a blocking force in the coastal villages of the city to prevent the rebels from getting reinforcements or slipping through. – Jaime Laude, Marvin Sy, Perseus Echeminada