MANILA, Philippines — Malacañang issued on Thursday an ultimatum to Moro rebels holding hostages in Zamboanga City to stand down, or risk a full-blown confrontation with government troops.
Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda made it clear that the government would not hesitate to use force to end the four-day crisis.
“We are exploring all options,” he said at a briefing in the Palace.
“The forces of the state are ready to exercise the resolve of the government. While the government is exhausting all avenues for a peaceful resolution to the situation, let it be clear to those defying us that they should not entertain the illusion that the state will hesitate to use its forces to protect our people,” said Lacierda.
“Instead, it is time for you to cooperate to resolve this situation peacefully at the soonest possible time. As for others who seek to take advantage of the situation, you will fail,” he stressed.
He said the “armed group” in Zamboanga “can take this statement as it is, and let them assess the situation on their own.”
President Aquino had no plans to fly to Zamboanga on Thursday or on Friday, with Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang belying rumors that Aquino had intended to go to Mindanao as early as Thursday evening.
The Palace issued the ultimatum after select members of the Cabinet—Secretaries Teresita Deles (peace process), Albert del Rosario (foreign affairs), Rene Almendras (Cabinet secretary), Joseph Abaya (transportation), Florencio Abad (budget), Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa (presidential legal counsel), Paquito Ochoa (executive secretary) Carandang and Lacierda—met with President.
The President did not hold the closed-door meeting at the Palace but at the New Executive Building (NEB), which houses the offices of Secretaries Lacierda, Carandang, Caguioa and Herminio Coloma, among others.
This surprised the Malacañang Press Corps whose press office is located on the ground floor.
At the briefing, Carandang explained what the President was doing in his office at NEB, and why the hasty change of venue for the meeting.
“Actually, we were just having lunch. I had a meeting with some of the Cabinet secretaries, including Secretary (Jose Rene) Almendras, Lacierda, (Teresita) Deles. We were discussing some of the issues that are ongoing and many of the Cabinet secretaries who were present in my office were going to be present in some of the President’s other meetings this afternoon. So when he found out that they were in my office, he came and joined us,” said Carandang.
He said that during the informal lunch meeting, there was discussion on the burning issues of the day.
“(We discussed) the (Senate) hearings that are going on right now, we discussed that a little bit. We discussed the incident in Zamboanga. We discussed even energy issues and some economic issues. After which, the President went back to his office,” he said.
Lacierda addressed the ultimatum to the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
“Groups opposed to the peace process, or who want to impose a peace solely from their viewpoint and on their terms, have sought to create disturbances. We have witnessed the bombing of Cagayan de Oro City and other similar events,” he said, reading from a statement.
He observed that there had been a lot of text messages circulating, “causing confusion and alarm among our people.”
Setting the record straight, he explained that the crisis was stoked by armed MNLF members who wanted to proceed to Zamboanga City supposedly to exercise their right to peaceful assembly.
“But the right to peaceful assembly cannot be exercised while bearing arms. In fact, when they tried to conduct a ‘peace rally’ in Sulu, they were prevented from doing so because they were armed.
“Allegedly, they attempted to do the same in Zamboanga City, where some of their members were arrested by the PNP; others were caught in a firefight in the waters off Zamboanga City by elements of the Philippine Navy. And those seeking safety inside coastal barangays have had to disperse,” said Lacierda.
According to him, there was an encounter in Basilan on Thursday, when members of the renegade Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), estimated at around 150, ostensibly tried to attack Lamitan City.
The armed forces stopped them, and after a two-hour firefight, went on a hot pursuit, he said.
“The BIFF and ASG assumed they could take advantage of the situation. They were wrong. As others who will also make similar attempts will be proven wrong,” he said.
“To the people of Zamboanga City, your government stands in solidarity with you and is working to ensure your needs are met,” he said.
The President has directed national government agencies to attend to the needs of the people of Zamboanga City and the BASULTA (Basilan-Sulu-Tawi-tawi) area by providing basic supplies through the Department of Transportation and Communications and Department of Trade and Industry.
He also asked the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas to ensure sufficient supplies of currency.
“We ask further cooperation from the people of Zamboanga City: we reiterate that there are people relishing this situation and who seek to inflame passions for various reasons. Please understand that rumors of abductions of religious leaders and firefights that did not take place, which are spread through anonymous text messages, aim to take advantage of you. Instead, listen to the authorities, who will give you the truth all the time,” said Lacierda.
He said the Palace was “very pleased” with the performance of the Zamboanga City government led by Mayor Isabel Climaco-Salazar.
“Despite being new to the job, she has demonstrated true leadership. We appeal to those eyeing the coming barangay elections to set aside politics when we are all busy ensuring the safety of our fellow citizens in Zamboanga City,” said Lacierda.