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6 killed, 24 wounded in MNLF attack

SIX persons, including a soldier and a policeman, were killed, while 24 others were wounded, after at least 300 members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MILF) under the faction of Chairman Nur Misuari simultaneously attacked five barangays in Zamboanga City on Monday morning.

MNLF fighters, headed by Commander Habier Malik, later held hostage more than 200 villagers and asked Indonesia to facilitate the talks for their release as government forces surrounded the villages that were attacked, police and military officials said.

Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, chief of the Armed Forces Public Information Office, said troops from the Naval Special Operations Unit-6 first encountered a group of MNLF fighters at around 1:45 a.m. near the coastal barangay of Rio Hondo, triggering a 10-minute firefight.

The clash, which happened as the rebels were moving toward the coast to land, left one soldier dead and six others wounded, he said.

Zamboanga City Mayor Isabelle Climaco Salazar said the barangays that are currently affected are Santa Catalina, Santa Barbara, Talon-Talon and Mampang.

“Twenty hostages are reported in Santa Catalina and 200 hostages at Kasanyangan Village in Mampang,” Salazar said.

She said 600 evacuees from Arena Blanco and Rio Hondo were housed at the grandstand in Rio Hondo, while 857 others were also sheltered at Tetuan Central School and Tetuan Parish Church and at the Talon-Talon National High School.

Zagala said other members of the Moro group, who were on land, also simultaneously attacked the barangays of Santa Catalina, Santa Barbara, Mariki and Talon-Talon, triggering a gun battle with policemen and soldiers,  and forcing the evacuation of residents.

Senior Supt. Wilben Mayor, National Police spokesman, said in Santa Barbara, members of the Special Action Force clashed with the Moro rebels, resulting in the death of one policeman.

Mayor said in Santa Catalina, at least 200 villages were also “stranded,” although reports reaching Camp Aguinaldo said at least 85 of them were hogtied by the rebels.

Zagala also said in Cataingan, a sitio of Santa Catalina, at least 20 civilians were held by the rebels.

Mayor said a crisis-management committee, headed by Salazar, has been formed, with the director of the Police Regional Office 9 (PRO 9) acting as the ground commander.

 “The PRO 9 has sufficient forces on the ground to respond to the situation,” Mayor said, adding the committee is working for the release of the hostages and is dealing with the situation with the help of police and military units.

Mayor said that all PROs and other units in Mindanao have been placed on the highest alert.

Zagala said police and military units, backed up by armored vehicles and air assets, have already cordoned off the five barangays.

According to Salazar, the Moro fighters, led by Malik, who is the commander of MNLF in Sulu under the faction of Misuari, had planned to attack the Zamboanga City Hall and hoist their flag there.

The MNLF has three factions, with the Misuari group declaring independence for Mindanao three weeks ago after claiming that the government has already abandoned the 1996 peace agreement that it signed with the MNLF.

Lawyer Emmanuel Fontanilla, spokesman for the Misuari group, accused the military of harassment, saying their members were moving to Zamboanga City for a peace rally when they were attacked at the shore.

The National Police said at least 10 MNLF members were arrested, some of them wearing their uniforms, after tight security was clamped down in the city.

Quick resolution sought

SENATORS on Monday called for a swift resolution of the crisis in Zamboanga City, where MNLF forces engaged government troops and held captive more than 200 civilians to dramatize their opposition to the ongoing peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

“The administration had better do everything in its power to prevent violence from overtaking its peace efforts, otherwise more lives will be lost needlessly and the environment of peace and development that the Republic of the Philippines is now enjoying will be ruined,” Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III said in a statement.

Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, chairman of the Senate Committee on National Defense and Security, hoped that the situation would be addressed soonest, but also blamed the government for “underestimating” the security threat posed by Misuari’s group and for excluding it in consultations on peace negotiations with the MILF.

“I’m sure that the Armed Forces is trying to contain the situation. Hopefully, as soon as possible, they would resolve this. But the underlying cause, is from the start, the MNLF had sounded off that they were excluded from the ongoing talks with the MILF… and apparently, it was ignored,” Trillanes said.

He said the same thing happened in the case of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III who moved to “reclaim” ancestral land in Sabah earlier this year after he and his family were left out of  peace negotiations with the MILF, which would include their territories in the new Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

Trillanes also said that contrary to government pronouncements that Misuari’s group was a “spent force,” the information he had received was that “it is significant enough to create a situation like what is happening in Zamboanga.”

“The worst thing that we can do right now is to underestimate sectors, voices, because this [Zamboanga situation] would really happen,” he said.

Trillanes said he could relate to the tack taken by Misuari to dramatize his sentiments since he had participated in two attempts to wrest power from the Arroyo administration—the Oakwood Mutiny in 2003 and the Manila Peninsula siege in 2007.

“I was there before. Sometimes you really have to resort to alternative means to send your message to those concerned.… After that, if we need to administer justice, we administer justice,” he said.

Trillanes said while he supports the peace talks with the MILF, the government cannot succeed in implementing it unless all stakeholders are consulted to their satisfaction.

“We have to pay attention to them. Otherwise, this would happen,” he said, referring to the Zamboanga crisis.

In a statement, Sen. Nancy Binay urged MNLF leaders to release the hostages without condition.

“We appeal to MNLF Chairman Nur Misuari and [Commander] Haber Malik for the immediate and unconditional release of the hostages, especially the children, women and the elderly,” Binay said.

She said, “it is not too late for the hostage-takers to sit down and talk to the government to seek redress for their grievances.”

Sen. Gregorio Honasan II said in response to queries of reports that the situation “should not affect the ongoing peace process.”

Honasan said in a text message to reporters that the government “must secure the civilian populace at all cost,” and that there must be “coordination among all sectors to prevent escalation and contain the situation Asap [as soon as possible].”

Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara condemned the assault as a “heinous and unforgivable act” that required the full force of the law.

“We are against any form of violence, lawlessness and threat to human life,” Angara said in a statement.

Airlines cancel flights to Zamboanga

COMMERCIAL flights to Zamboanga City were canceled starting Monday morning in the wake of the MNLF attack.

The Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (Caap) immediately issued a notice-to-airmen (Notam), saying the Zamboanga International Airport is closed from 9:50 a.m. on Monday, until 9 p.m., owing to security and safety concerns.

William K. Hotchkiss, Caap chief, said ten commercial flights were canceled, mostly by Airphil Express and Cebu Pacific.

He said the canceled flights are two from Airphil Express coming from Manila to Zamboanga and back to Manila. There were eight flights for Cebu Pacific: seven on the Manila-Zamboanga-Manila routes and one on the Tawi-Tawi-Zamboanga-Cebu route.

Philippine Airlines (PAL) announced the cancellation of all flight operations to Zamboanga until further notice to ensure the safety of its passengers amid the ongoing security concerns in the city.

“The canceled PAL Express flights are Manila-Zamboanga-Manila scheduled tonight [Monday night] and flights bound for Jolo, Davao and Cebu,” the announcement said.

PAL said passengers of these flights may arrange for a rebooking or refund with any PAL or PAL Express ticket office.

(With Butch Fernandez, Mia Gonzalez, Recto Mercene and Lenie Lectura)






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