ZAMBOANGA CITY—What’s really going on?
Local and national government officials have yet to provide a clear picture of what was really happening in the villages on the second day of a standoff between the armed followers of Nur Misuari and government troops.
“We have not been able to enter, nobody has been able to enter these areas,” Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said. “There has really been no head count. Most of the details that have been repeated come from media. The intelligence units of the military and police are trying to validate this.”
Misuari’s men were reportedly still holding at least 40 residents in two coastal villages here on Tuesday, punctuated by skirmishes with government troops and with feelings of dismay over the city officials’ inaction.
“I had not seen anybody from our city government or the police who helped us since Day One,” said Gina Lazaro, a resident of Sitio Lustre in Barangay (village) Santa Barbara.
Lazaro’s uncle, 70-year-old Ben Leonardo, is one of 34 people being held captive by gunmen loyal to Misuari, founding chair of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
Misuari’s men landed by boat from nearby Sulu and Basilan provinces and poured into the fishing villages on Monday, causing panic in the city of nearly one million people.
Misuari had earlier declared “independence” on the eve of another round of peace negotiations between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the government in Kuala Lumpur.
He has criticized a preliminary peace deal signed last year by the government and the MILF, claiming that it marginalized the MNLF and a peace agreement signed in 1996.
President Aquino, speaking to reporters in Manila, refused to set a deadline for resolving the crisis. “We can’t be giving deadlines when what we want to ensure is that no more civilians are affected, hurt or killed,” he said.
A Scout Ranger Battalion (SRB) based in Negros Island and over 100 policemen from Cebu were deployed to Zamboanga on Tuesday to augment government troops there.
The departure of the Army’s 500-strong elite 1st Scout Ranger Battalion was “very, very unexpected” considering that they were in the midst of anti-insurgency operations in Central Negros, Brig. Gen. Francisco Patrimonio, 302nd Infantry Brigade commander, said in Bacolod City.
Knocking on doors
The initial attack killed four people and left 14 injured, Roxas and Zamboanga Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco Salazar told a joint news conference on Tuesday afternoon. On Monday, the mayor said there were six dead and 24 wounded, and gave no explanation for the revision.
A military spokesman, Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, said 180 MNLF gunmen could be hiding out in the communities and armed with rifles and mortars, revising an earlier estimate of 200-300 gunmen.
Nearly 3,000 families have fled their homes and are now staying at the city grandstand, Tetuan Church, Tetuan Elementary School, Mampang Elementary School, Talon-Talon National High School and the Department of Public Works and Highways compound, Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said in a statement in Manila.
Soliman said 287 people sought shelter at the regional office of the Department of Social Welfare and Development and were given food. They were later transferred to the city grandstand.
Although the gunmen have not harmed their captives, Lazaro said, “they knocked on doors announcing that they were taking the houses until it’s over.”
Belman Malandi, barangay chair of Santa Catalina, also expressed disappointment when he was advised by a staff of Salazar to fend for themselves for a while “because the mayor is in a meeting. Good luck.”
“All throughout the day (Monday), I have been calling the mayor. No reply, no advice, not even a shadow of anybody appointed as member of the crisis management committee,” Malandi said.
He said he was not trained to negotiate and felt helpless handling the situation, with MNLF forces holding 35 people 400 meters away from his barangay hall.
Jimmy Villaflores, a councilman of Santa Catalina, said he was forced to intervene. “I am supposed to secure my family, but I am here trying to appease the Moro rebels, feeding the hostages, assuring them that our government will soon be here to secure them,” he said.
The MNLF forces in Santa Catalina are led by Ismael Dasta, a Basilan-based commander of the MNLF National Security Operations Command.
Police not around
On Monday night, Dasta agreed to release a 10-year-old boy as requested by Army Col. Johnson Aseron, head of the 32nd Infantry Battalion.
In Barangay Talon-Talon, village councilman Teodyver Arquiza received five hostages on Tuesday. Six more men are still being held by MNLF unit led by Maid Ajirin, he said.
Roxas attributed the release of the five to police negotiators. Arquiza, however, said he and resident Moctar Muarip worked for the release.
“It’s not fair to attribute to police officials our efforts when they were not even around to help us,” Arquiza said.
Roxas said 180 people were being held hostage. “These are only estimates, and whatever the number is, it does not appear that they are being treated as hostages because they freely move about. They are not handcuffed or in any way tied, or restricted in movement.”
On Monday, Salazar said in a statement that 200 people were being held in Mampang. After journalists who checked the place found none, she acknowledged the mistake, saying she got the figure from the military.
Commanders of the MNLF forces admitted using the residents as “human shield” and as guides.
“We need them to serve as our guides. We don’t know the place,” Basher Arkid, an MNLF commander from Basilan, told the Inquirer in an interview.
Arkid’s men are holding six hostages in Talon-Talon. He said the hostages would be freed once they reached Santa Catalina where they would meet the main group of Dasta.
Dasta’s group, which is holding 34 hostages, will be waiting for Arkid’s group in Bonggo a coastal community in between Santa Catalina and Talon-Talon. Dasta also told the Inquirer that his group needed the hostages as human shield and guides.
“They do not know their way around,” said one of the hostages, Junior Santander Morte, 60.
‘Only a game’
Another MNLF group that arrived from Sulu is stuck in Santa Barbara. “They are fully armed and they see everything as only a game,” said a resident, who refused to be identified for security reasons.
Unlike the other groups which preferred to stay along the road, the MNLF’s Onggong group led by Habier Malik occupied several establishments and houses in Santa Barbara.
They have kept firing their guns since Monday night and even busted a power transformer, resulting in power loss in Santa Catalina and Santa Barbara.
One of their hostages is diocesan priest Michael Ufana, residents said. Another, retired police officer Eddie Macaso, was freed Tuesday afternoon.
At 3 a.m. that day, Marines, Army and police started pounding the locations of the Onggong group.
A fire broke out at 3 p.m. in Santa Barbara, but Villaflores, a councilman from the adjacent village of Santa Catalina, said he could not say if it was started by the gunmen.
Trying to negotiate
“The security forces … have stabilized the situation. It has been contained and isolated and won’t spread to other areas,” Roxas told reporters, adding that authorities were trying to negotiate with the gunmen.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said government forces “were able to intercept” other MNLF forces who had been on their way to Zamboanga, but gave no details.
MNLF spokesman Emmanuel Fontanilla told dzMM radio that the rebels were prepared to dig in. “Our forces will stay where they are. They are on a defensive posture,” he said.—With reports from Michael Lim Ubac, Nikko Dizon and Cynthia D. Balana in Manila; Carla P. Gomez, Inquirer Visayas; and AFP