Moro rebel leader Nur Misuari on Wednesday disowned the commander of his followers who had seized coastal villages in Zamboanga City as government forces launched an offensive to dislodge the rebels.
On Thursday, the fourth day of a standoff between government security forces and fighters from Misuari’s faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), Malacañang issued an ultimatum to the rebels, ordering them to stand down or face the full power of the state.
The rebels called for a ceasefire through the Inquirer on Thursday, saying many of their 40 hostages in Santa Catalina village, including a priest, had been injured in the fighting.
One of the hostages also talked to the Inquirer by phone, asking that the call for a ceasefire be relayed to the government so the injured could receive medical help.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda made it clear at a news briefing that the government would not hesitate to use force to end the crisis.
“While the government is exhausting all avenues for a peaceful resolution of 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,” Lacierda said.
“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 said.
Lacierda said the “armed group” in Zamboanga City could take his statement “as it is,” and the rebels could “assess the situation on their own.”
Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang said President Aquino had no plans of going to Zamboanga City whether on Thursday or Friday.
Talk with Misuari
Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar said she finally managed to reach Misuari by telephone late Wednesday, and asked him to call off the attack.
“What is of interest is that Misuari disowned the actions of Habier Malik, the leader of the hostage-takers with whom I communicated separately,” Salazar said in a statement released Thursday.
Malik is the leader of MNLF fighters from the island province of Basilan who attacked coastal villages in Zamboanga City at dawn on Monday and seized civilians, using them as human shields to thwart a military assault.
But Emmanuel Fontanilla, spokesman and lawyer for Misuari, said on Monday that it was Misuari who was directing the MNLF fighters’ movements.
Santa Catalina fire
Misuari’s followers torched houses on Thursday as about 200 elite military and police units punched into Santa Catalina village, one of the rebels’ strongholds.
Santa Catalina village council member Jimmy Villaflores told the Inquirer that the fire, which the rebels set off at about 2 p.m., was spreading fast, engulfing homes on Lustre Street and Martha Drive.
“My house was included,” Villaflores said.
Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said sniper fire from the rebels prevented firefighters from putting out the fire that engulfed Zamboanga State College of Marine Science and Technology.
Roxas said the school was also hit by mortar fire on Tuesday.
“Our firemen immediately responded to the fire, but they were met with gunfire. It’s really dangerous for them to approach the area.
Soldiers and police were fighting 180 MNLF rebels holed up and holding about 100 civilians as hostages in Santa Catalina and Santa Barbara villages.
Around 5:30 p.m., Ismael Dasta, commander of the MNLF rebels from Basilan, called up the Inquirer asking to relay his call for a ceasefire because two hostages were wounded in the fighting.
Dasta identified one of the injured hostages as Clemente Almonte.
A hostage named David Nifras also spoke to the Inquirer by phone and said a priest, Fr. Michael Ufana, was also wounded.
“We are seeking help. Tell the government that we need a ceasefire. Many are injured but two are in critical condition,” Nifras said.
“We are trapped in a place where there is fire and gunfire. Please help us relay this to the government. We are about 40 people here,” he said.
Government troops also battled gunmen who attacked Army positions on nearby Basilan Island on Thursday, wounding at least three soldiers, the military said.
Apart from the three soldiers wounded in Basilan, one soldier was killed in a firefight with the rebels on Wednesday, while a village watchman who was mistaken for a rebel was shot dead by the security forces, Col. Rodrigo Gregorio, regional military spokesman, said.
The killings raised the death toll during the standoff to 14, including three civilians, one police officer, two soldiers and eight rebels in four days of fighting.
Gregorio said two MNLF “stragglers” fleeing the area were arrested on Wednesday.
With the fighting on its fourth day, Zamboanga City remained closed, with most commercial flights and ferry services suspended.
Salazar said officials were moving to bring back vital services to the rest of the city of nearly 1 million.
She called on shops to reopen, doctors to remain in hospitals and for the public to stay calm as authorities established communication lines with rebel leaders to convince them to end the crisis.
“I again [appeal] to the hostage-takers, please let go of the hostages, especially the elderly, the sick, the children and people with disabilities,” Salazar said.
Talks with rebels
In a telephone interview with the Inquirer, Maid Ajirin, leader of the rebel group in Talon-Talon village, said Cabinet officials and military generals invited them to a meeting at the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) headquarters in Zamboanga City on Tuesday night.
“They fetched us from Santa Catalina,” Ajirin said.
The talks ran for about three hours, but no agreement was reached, particularly on the rebels’ ceasefire demand, he said.
The officials ferried the rebels back to Santa Catalina, Ajirin said.
Dasta, leader of the rebels in Santa Catalina, confirmed the meeting.
Roxas also confirmed the meeting.
“There were authorized talks with a commander with roughly 20 men in Talon-Talon,” Roxas said. “This commander showed kindness by releasing the family (a mother and her four children) being held hostage.”
Roxas declined to give details of the talks at Westmincom.—With reports from Marlon Ramos and AFP