ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines — As early as Sunday night, Moro National Liberation Front forces were able to enter several coastal villages using small sea vessels from Basilan. Some entered the city as passengers of a commercial boat from Sulu. Those from Zamboanga Sibugay arrived via passenger buses.
Zaldy Astam, a resident of Santa Catalina, said as early as Sunday night, armed men knocked from house to house, “humihingi ng mistang (lugaw) (asking for food).”
“They left after eating,” Astam said.
Astam said they were shocked to see the armed men.
“They carried high-powered firearms. All in MNLF uniform. They said they were from Basilan, but they did not hurt us. Some of my neighbors got scared and reported it to the barangay (officials),” Astam said.
The presence of the armed men also prompted some residents to evacuate to the barangay (village) hall.
Salvador Badong, another resident of Sta. Catalina, said when he saw the armed men, he and his family immediately left their home to seek shelter at the barangay hall.
Santa Catalina barangay chairman Belman Malandi said he was attending to the needs of the evacuees at the barangay hall when they heard the first bursts of gunfire at 3 a.m. Monday.
“We quickly proceeded to the barangay hall. Then, we realized some of the gunfire were within our vicinity,” Malandi said.
Paul Aukasa, who acted as spokesperson of the Basilan-based MNLF forces, said they have been holding 35 hostages (not 38 as earlier reported) — 10 females, two children and 23 males.
“Pinulot — kinuha lang namin sila sa mga daan na dinaanan namin, para kapag nakita kami ng mga sundalo hindi kami barilin (We just got them along the way so that the soldiers won’t shoot us if they see us),” Aukasa said when asked why they took hostages.
Aukasa said they arrived in Zamboanga from Basilan on board 20 motorboats at around 1 a.m., hours ahead of their planned march to the Plaza Pershing (near City Hall) where they wanted to display the MNLF flag.
Aukasa said in the village of Talon-Talon, some government soldiers saw them, prompting them to use civilians as “human shield.”
Aukasa said the plan was for them to march from Talon-Talon to Plaza Pershing where they were to hold a rally.
“Gusto namin independence ng Mindanao. Hindi kami aalis dito hangga’t di kami payagang magmartsa na walang sundalo (We want independence for Mindanao. We won’t leave until we are allowed to march without the soldiers),” he said.
Ustadz Ismael Dasta, commander of the MNLF from Basilan, assured the public they would not harm the hostages.
“Payagan lang kami lumakad (to Plaza Pershing) okay na yon. Hindi namin sinasaktan ang mga hostages, pinapakain namin sila [Just let us walk (to Plaza Pershing), that would be okay for us. We are not hurting the hostages, we’re giving them food],” Dasta said.
The hostages were held some 400 meters away from the barangay hall of Santa Catalina.
They sat on the pavement along the Santa Catalina highway. A nylon rope was used to “encircle” the hostages.
Dasta provided lunch and snacks, including soda and water, for the hostages.
The hostages said MNLF’s account of what happened was right.
Junior Morte, 60, said he was on his way to work when held by the MNLF forces.
“Sumama na lang ako para hindi saktan. Hindi naman nila ako ginalaw [I just went along with them so as not to get hurt. They didn’t hurt me],” he said.
The hostages appealed to Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco Salazar to intervene.
“If the mayor values our lives dapat nasa bahay na kami ngayon [we should be home by now],” Rosauro Peralta, 67, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
Most of the hostages came from Barangay Talon-Talon and were brought to Santa Catalina as early as 5 a.m.. The Inquirer interviewed the hostages at around 3 p.m.
Peralta and his wife were on a motorcycle on their way to the market when armed men flagged them down. They asked them to leave their motorcycle in the village of Mampang.
Wilfredo Ramirez and his two grandsons Earl, 12, and Daniel, 10, and daughter Maricel were fetching water to sell to their neighbors when they were stopped at a checkpoint set up by the MNLF forces.
“We just followed their orders so that they will not harm my grandsons and daughter,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez also pleaded for government’s intervention. “Kahit mga apo ko na lang. Mga bata sila at walang alam sa nangyayari [Please ensure the release of my grandchildren. They’re still kids and have no knowledge of what’s going on],” he said.
Malandi, the barangay chair of Santa Catalina, said he was hoping the crisis would end before 5 p.m. “because there’s power outage and we don’t know what would happen at night.”
But Malandi said he was informed by the staff of the mayor that the situation in Santa Catalina would require national government response, and that the mayor was in a meeting with Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel Roxas II and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin.
Lawyer Emmanuel Fontanilla, legal counsel and spokesperson of the MNLF faction led by Misuari, said their “scheduled peace rally” in Zamboanga City turned bloody after fighting erupted between their members and government security forces.
The MNLF said police forces conducted “uncoordinated law enforcement operations” forcing their members to fight back in self-defense.
“The peace rally was coordinated with the local government, but they refused to give us permit for the rally,” Fontanilla told the Inquirer by phone.
The city government said at least six people, four of them civilians, were killed in the skirmishes.
The city government, quoting the city police command, said four civilians, a policeman and a navy personnel were killed in the “course of the encounter between government troops and the rebels.” More casualties are reported on the enemy side, a statement from the city government said.
The affected villages are Sta. Catalina, Sta. Barbara, Talon-talon and Mampang.
Some 600 residents from Barangays Arena Blanco and Rio Hondo have evacuated to the grandstand; 847 evacuees at Tetuan Central School and Tetuan Parish Church, while several others are at the Talon-talon National High School.
General Rey Ardo, chief of the Western Mindanao Command, said additional troops from Zamboanga Peninsula and Basilan — the 44th Infantry Battalion in Zamboanga Sibugay and two companies from Basilan — where dispatched to Zamboanga City.
“We have enough troops– the 32nd IB, Task Force Zamboanga, Air Force, Marines, Navy and Police –securing the entire city. Reinforcements (are intended) to secure to outskirts and main highway leaving and getting inside the city,” Ardo told the Inquirer by phone.
Ardo said for more than three days, “we’ve been monitoring their movements and apprehended some of them last (Sunday) night but some managed to board commercial vessels and they were able to secure firearms from their local allies and relatives in Zamboanga City.”
Ardo said he could not give actual number of the MNLF forces who invaded Zamboanga City, but “we know it’s Habier Malik who is leading the group while Nur Misuari is in Talipao (Sulu).”
Malik is a Sulu-based MNLF commander.