MANILA, Philippines — Zamboanga City woke up Monday morning under siege from hundreds of Moro National Liberation Front members (MNLF) from the faction of Nur Misuari who had wanted to raise their group’s flag, effectively declaring independence from the government after they felt left out of the peace process being hammered out with the rival Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
One Navy Special Forces personnel and four civilians were reported killed while six other Navy men, including an officer, and 14 civilians were wounded in the firefight between the military and the MNLF forces as they occupied the villages of Sta. Catalina, Sta. Barbara, Rio Hondo, and Talon-Talon.
Around 200 residents from the four barangays were reportedly taken hostage by the MNLF. But security forces said the residents were “stranded.”
“They are not under the armed control of the MNLF,” said Brigadier General Domingo Tutaan, spokesperson of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), in a press conference late Monday afternoon held at the military headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo.
Initial reports said that around 20 civilians were made “human shields” by the MNLF fighters.
Tutaan also said that MNLF commander Habier Malik, described as a loyal lieutenant of Misuari, has been sighted in Sta. Catalina.
“We are still confirming if there were direct orders from Misuari himself,” Tutaan said.
Misuari is reportedly in Indangan, Sulu.
Five MNLF commanders, who were in MNLF uniforms, were arrested by the Philippine National Police (PNP) early Monday morning in Rio Hondo for illegal possession of firearms.
A military source said the arrested commanders said that they have been told to attend the “raising of the Bangsamoro flag” at the Zamboanga City Hall.
“We cannot allow that because we are one country under one flag. We cannot allow them to do that most especially because this group is armed,” Tutaan said.
The attack of Misuari’s group in Zamboanga City came as a surprise to the other MNLF faction led by former Cotabato City Mayor Muslimin Sema.
Sema told the Inquirer by phone that his group had directed their ground commanders in Central Mindanao, Western Mindanao, and Lanao del Norte “to stay put and not be swayed” by the ongoing situation in Zamboanga City.
“We are saddened by what is happening and we are worried that this might trigger a bigger (incident). We don’t know, this might snowball because those who are opposing the government’s stand on the MNLF final peace agreement might be swayed. This is the challenge everybody is facing now,” Sema said.
Sema was referring to the move of the government to terminate the Tripartite Implementation Review of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement with the MNLF.
The next meeting is scheduled on September 15 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
The 40th round of talks between the Philippine government and the MILF began Monday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Sema said he has not been in touch with Misuari, much less have they exchanged ideas about the developments in the tripartite review and the government’s peace talks with the MILF.
But Sema said he believed that Misuari felt that government’s move to terminate the review meant that “it amounted to the abrogation of the peace agreement.”
“If one party withdraws from the tripartite review, then there’s nothing to talk about anymore. In Misuari’s view, there is no point anymore,” Sema said.
Sema’s group considers the government’s position, as relayed to the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) Peace Committee for Southern Philippines (PCSP) chaired by Indonesia, as a mere “proposal” that could still be discussed in the Yogyakarta meeting.
Sema said the government’s position was contained in two letters sent by Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario to the PCSP, Indonesia as the facilitator, and the OIC.
Sema said the first letter was sent in March and the other, more recently. He had seen both letters, Sema said.
According to Sema, the Del Rosario letters proposed that the contentious points from RA 9054, the law amending the Organic Act that created the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), be included in the Framework Agreement with the MILF, to be discussed by the Transition Commission.
While Sema said he did and would not support the ongoing attacks in Zamboanga City, he and Misuari continue to share “the strategic objective of establishing the Bangsamoro and the right to self-determination.”
“The MNLF, as a whole, we feel betrayed. We have given so much leeway in giving peace a chance,” Sema said of government’s handling of its final peace agreement with the MNLF and the ongoing peace process with the MILF.
At press time, there was no reported firefight between the security forces and the MNLF but the standoff is far from over.
The incident, described by Tutaan as “volatile and fast-paced,” required the presence of the government’s top security officials in Zamboanga City.
President Benigno Aquino III dispatched Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, AFP Chief of Staff Emmanuel Bautista, PNP Deputy Director for Operations Felipe L. Rojas Jr., and Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II to Zamboanga City to oversee the government’s strategic response to the standoff.
ARMM Governor Mujiv Hataman and Zamboanga Representative Celso Lobregat joined the group.
Mayor Isabelle Climaco-Lobregat met them at the airport and apprised them of the situation, a statement from the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) said.
“Zamboanga City is a primary city. It is a populated area. We want to make sure that the situation is contained. The military leadership is there to oversee the strategic operations,” Tutaan said.
The Naval Special Operations Group (Navsog) had been patrolling the Sulu Sea that included the four seaside villages when they encountered the MNLF group at around 1:45 am on Monday.
The firefight resulted in the death of one Navsog personnel and the wounding of a Navsog officer and three other soldiers.
Tutaan said the military has been monitoring the Misuari-led MNLF faction since its weekend “peaceful protest rally” in Davao City, as he denied that security forces’ intelligence information failed, which led to the attack in Zamboanga City.
The military said there could have been other MNLF members already in the villages even before some of Misuari’s followers sailed to Zamboanga City, which explains why there were MNLF forces in the villages despite the Navy’s maritime patrol.
There is now a “deployment and redeployment” of troops in Zamboanga City, according to Tutaan. The tactical operations are headed by Task Force Zamboanga but would be taken over by the 102nd Army Brigade.