ZAMBOANGA CITY—Moro rebels holding scores of hostages in coastal villages here are demanding international mediation, Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar said on Wednesday, as fresh rounds of fire broke out between government troops and the rebels on the third day of a standoff.
The rebels, trying to sabotage peace talks between the government and a rival insurgent group, put a dozen civilians tied together by rope on display as human shields in Santa Barbara village.
The hostages, waving white flags, shouted “please don’t shoot” at government troops as rebel snipers perched on a roof of a residential block fired at soldiers 500 meters away.
The soldiers returned fire to keep the pressure on the rebels, but did not launch an assault.
“Our troops are only returning fire. We are not launching an offensive,” said Army spokesperson Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala.
“Our mission is to contain them, not to rescue hostages,” he said.
Mayor Salazar, head of the local crisis committee, said in a television interview that a former governor of Sulu province, the rebels’ stronghold, tried to talk to the followers of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) leader Nur Misuari on Tuesday, “but they refused to talk to anyone locally.”
“They say that it’s an international problem, and no less than the international community, the (United Nations), should come in,” Salazar said.
Shots rang out as Salazar spoke from City Hall.
Numbering about 180, the rebels were holding at least 40 civilian hostages as human shields in Santa Catalina and Santa Barbara villages on the coast.
They are surrounded by hundreds of government troops and police whom they engage in sporadic exchanges of gunfire.
The government had no immediate response to the rebels’ demand for international mediation, but Secretary Teresita Deles, presidential adviser for the peace process, said the government had opened all avenues of communication with Misuari to end the standoff in Zamboanga without further bloodshed.
Deles said officials were also trying to reach other MNLF leaders identified with Misuari’s faction for suggestions on how to end the standoff.
But the message that the officials received is that only Misuari can end the crisis, Deles said.
Misuari is nowhere to be found. His spokesman and legal adviser, Emmanuel Fontanilla, said on Wednesday the crisis cannot be settled by fighting.
“The question that must be answered right now is how to resolve this through a political solution rather than a military solution,” Fontanilla said.
“Our demand right now is for the government to stop all military actions,” he said.
Fontanilla spoke from General Santos City where he said he was waiting for results of negotiations that he could relay to Misuari.
President Aquino said the top priority was the safety of the hostages and residents of the city. He sent top Cabinet officials and military chief of staff Gen. Emmanuel Bautista to oversee the security crisis.
Fontanilla asked why the President was not directly dealing with the crisis.
“Isn’t it the President who should decide this issue? So why is it the military that is directly handling it and answering (questions)?” he asked.
Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said a crisis committee led by Salazar was ready to negotiate with the rebels for the release of the hostages.
He said some officials had opened talks with the rebels “at different levels,” including a commander loyal to Misuari, but added there had been no breakthrough.
The Department of Justice has created a team of prosecutors to assist the Philippine National Police in investigating the attack on Zamboanga City and in bringing charges against Misuari.
The creation of the panel of prosecutors is “in the interest of the service and pursuant to the provisions of existing laws,” Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said.
Asked by reporters if Misuari would be charged with rebellion, De Lima said, “That is being studied.”
There were no immediate reports of anyone being killed in Wednesday’s exchanges of fire in Zamboanga City. But three wounded rebels were arrested after exchanging gunfire with police manning a roadblock to stop Misuari’s men from fleeing.
At least nine people have been killed and 24 others injured since the standoff began on Monday, the eve of the resumption of talks between negotiators from the administration of President Aquino and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Kuala Lumpur.
Zamboanga City remained shut down, with most commercial air and ferry services suspended.
Communities near the sites of the clashes resembled a war zone, with armored troop carriers lining streets, troops massing at a school and snipers taking positions atop buildings. A mosque and its minaret were pockmarked with bullet holes.
On Tuesday, the rebels fired two mortar rounds near the port, prompting authorities to order vessels to dock elsewhere.
The government rushed more troops and police to the city, and there were sporadic exchanges of fire.
Some houses went up in flames in rebel-held villages, forcing more residents to flee.
The MNLF signed a peace accord brokered by a committee of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) with the government in 1996, but hundreds of its fighters held on to their arms and have recently accused officials of reneging on a promise to develop an autonomous region for Muslims in Mindanao.
They also felt left out after the 11,000-strong MILF, which broke away from the MNLF in 1996, engaged in increasingly successful peace talks with the government.
In October last year, the government and the MILF signed a preliminary peace agreement, with the establishment of an autonomous Bangsamoro region in Mindanao as the objective. The current talks in Kuala Lumpur hope to work toward a final peace deal that both sides want to sign before President Aquino’s term ends in 2016.
Misuari, a former governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which will be expanded to form the proposed Bangsamoro region, opposes a separate deal between the government and the MILF.
He insists on the full implementation of the 1996 peace agreement, which is under review with help from facilitator Indonesia.
Last month, the MNLF faction led by Misuari issued new threats to secede by establishing its own “Bangsamoro Republik.” Misuari reportedly appointed himself chief of the armed forces of that republic.
But Misuari has not appeared in public or issued any statement since a band of his followers barged into Zamboanga City’s coast early Monday, and clashed with soldiers and police, and took civilians as human shields to thwart an all-out assault by government troops.
The military said it hoped officials would find a way to resolve the conflict.
“We are wishing that this be finished the soonest possible time. That is the objective of the Crisis Management Committee (of which) the AFP is part,” said Brig. Gen. Domingo Tutaan, the AFP spokesperson.
Tutaan said General Bautista remained in Zamboanga City overseeing the military operations.
Zagala denied reports that the military had called for a ceasefire.
“There’s no call for a ceasefire. We have maintained our positions and we are not on the offensive,” Zagala said.
The Philippine Navy has thrown a blockade between the Zamboanga Peninsula and the island province of Basilan to prevent more followers of Misuari from reinforcing their companions trapped in Zamboanga City.
Lt. Cmdr. Gregory Fabic, spokesman for the Navy, said Navy headquarters was verifying reports that naval forces had intercepted MNLF fighters who tried to escape from Zamboanga City and return to Basilan.
The Philippine Coast Guard placed its forces in Jolo on red alert on Wednesday following reports of gunfire and explosions near the port at the capital of Sulu province.
Cmdr. Armand Balilo, spokesman for the Coast Guard, did not give details of the reports.
Hoisting MNLF flag foiled
Army spokesman Zagala said on Monday that the rebels had planned to march into Zamboanga City and hoist their flag at city hall, but that government forces discovered the plan.
Deles, who oversees the talks with the MILF, condemned the actions by Misuari’s group, challenging claims by some of Misuari’s followers that they planned only to stage a peaceful protest.
She said the government was also talking to Indonesia in a search for a peaceful resolution of the standoff.
Indonesian Ambassador to the Philippines Yohanes Kristiarto Soeryo Legowo said Indonesia had “not received any official communication.”
Legowo said on Tuesday night, that they “would like to see that we will be able to find a peaceful resolution to this problem as soon as possible so we could avoid any more casualties.”
Deles said Misuari could rest assured that the government troops encircling his fighters in Zamboanga City had been deployed only to prevent the crisis from spilling to other parts of the city and not to crush them.
But officials were stumped about what would “make Misuari happy,” she added.
It’s about autonomy
She said Misuari’s declaration of independence was not part of the review of the 1996 peace agreement.
“[T]here is not a single word in the 1996 final peace agreement about independence. The political settlement was about autonomy,” Deles said.
She disputed observations that the government has largely ignored Misuari since entering into peace talks with the MILF.
In fact, she said, MNLF leaders have agreed to attend the Sept. 16 review of the 1996 peace agreement in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
“When you look at the pattern of what we have done, when you look at the meetings that we have held, and I will talk about the Bandung (Indonesia) meeting (in 2012) where we waited for six hours after the technical working group had completed the language for their issue on plebiscite, we waited for six hours for Mr. Misuari to come out, and he turned down that very proposal that had been approved by his representatives and the technical working group,” Deles said.
“No, I deny that we have not given full recognition to Mr. Misuari and the MNLF,” she said.
Deles stressed that the government has not abrogated the 1996 peace agreement, but has proposed to the OIC the completion of the review.—Reports from TJ Burgonio, Nikko Dizon, Jerome Aning, Tarra Quismundo and Jerry Esplanada in Manila; Karlos Manlupig, Eldie Aguirre, Charlie Señase, Judy Quiros, Jeoffrey Maitem and Richel Umel, Inquirer Mindanao; and AP