MANILA, Philippines – Up to 30 hostages have been allegedly taken by heavily armed members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) after a fierce clash with government troops in Zamboanga City on Monday that left one naval special forces member dead, authorities said.
Vice Mayor Cesar Iturralde told INQUIRER.net that the group was demanding to put up its flag in the government city hall.
But Police Chief Superintendent Juanito Vaño Jr., Region IX police director, in a separate report, said at least 20 heavily rebels entered Barangay (village) Sta. Catalina and held hostage 10 to 15 civilians.
“Hopefully we will be able to get the civilians and engage them properly,” Vaño said in a radio interview.
Military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said the navy men clashed with about 100 MNLF rebels, who were on board a large motorboat and eight smaller vessels off Rio Hondo, a crowded Muslim community in the port city of Zamboanga.
The pre-dawn clash later spilled into Rio Hondo as people slept, prompting scores of residents to flee, Zagala said. Reinforcement troops and police have been deployed to help secure Rio Hondo, which is located near the downtown area of Zamboanga, a bustling trading hub in the south.
Prior to the encounter, which the Region IX Tactical Operations Center said started between 4 a.m. to 5 a.m., Vaño said several uniformed MNLF members were arrested after they were seen carrying their firearms.
“They are not allowed to do that in Zamboanga City. Unang una, hindi naman ito part ng Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. Pangalawa, they are not supposed to be here with their firearms and uniforms,” Vaño said.
Asked if the group didn’t coordinate their entry with authorities, Vaño said the group did not have to make any coordination since they are not allowed in the area to start with.
Vaño said he could not confirm yet the number of fatalities though he said four police officers were slightly wounded in the gunfight.
Radyo Inquirer 990AM reported that the gunfight had forced the suspension of classes and work in the city. The same report was posted by the Philippine Information Agency – Region 9 on Twitter.
“Gunfight continues to frighten Zamboanga City residents as MNLF and government [troops] exchanged gun fire,” PIA-Region 9 said on its Twitter post.
“MNLF has penetrated the city specifically in the areas of Talon-Talon, Rio Hondo and Mariki. According to Bong Simbajon of Radyo Agong, MNLF penetrated the city 4:00 this morning bringing heavy firearms and explosives,” it further said.
PIA – Region 9 said the gunfight had prompted Mayor Maria Isabelle “Beng” Climaco to announce the suspension of classes in all levels, private and public, in the city. Work has also been suspended.
“Authorities are collaborating efforts to resolve the situation. Public is advised to remain calm and sober but alert and vigilant and report anything unusual to police, telephone number 9915656 or to the nearest police station. Mayor Climaco is convening the Crisis Management Committee to assess the situation,” the Twitter post added.
U.S. counterterrorism forces that have been providing training to Filipino troops for years are based in a Philippine military camp in Zamboanga city but officials said the skirmishes have been confined so far to Rio Hondo.
The Moro group signed a 1996 peace accord with the government but many of its fighters held on to their arms and accused officials of reneging on a promise to develop an autonomous region for minority Muslims in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines. With reports from AP.
Originally posted: 7:45 am | Monday, September 9th, 2013