ZAMBOANGA CITY – Government forces assaulted positions held by Moro National Liberation Front guerrillas in Zamboanga’s Santa Catalina district here on Friday, barely 30 minutes after President Aquino announced there would be no let-up in military operations to dislodge an unknown number of MNLF gunmen who have been occupying at three least city districts and holding a number of hostages since Monday.
Mr. Aquino arrived here Friday morning to check on the condition of ground troops and the affected residents.
“Their happy days are over,” the President said to at least 300 government soldiers at 12:33 p.m. Friday. At 1 p.m., soldiers in Santa Catalina armed with mortars, M-203 grenade launchers and machine-guns fired at positions of guerrillas belonging to a faction of the MNLF headed by MNLF founder Nur Misuari.
A few hours later, at least five armored personnel carriers were seen moving into the besieged area, where smoke could be seen billowing from at least three areas where fires had been reported.
Thursday night, Ustadz Ismael Dasta, leader of the Basilan-based MNLF forces holed up in Santa Catalina, had called for a ceasefire, saying there were wounded hostages.
On Friday morning, Dasta told the Inquirer they were open for negotiations and a ceasefire.
When the military started its operations at 1 p.m., Dasta again called the Inquirer. He sounded angry and said in Filipino: “Where is the ceasfire? What is this? We had proper talks since last night and this morning and now this. They are hitting us with cannon, mortar and M-203.”
Dasta refused to identify the persons he claimed he had negotiated with.
At the height of heavy firing, mostly coming from the side of government forces, a fire broke out on Lustre Street.
The firing also happened minutes after a number of people, apparently hostages, waved a piece of white cloth some 500 meters away from the military’s position.
Capt. Arvin Lawrence Llenaresas, chief of the 7th Scout Ranger Company, said they did not have a “clear number of civilians being held hostage and taken as human shield by these rebels.”
In his speech at the Western Mindanao Command headquarters, Mr. Aquino said the government valued not only the lives of civilians but also those of the soldiers.
“In behalf of the people, I thank you,” Mr. Aquino told the soldiers.
The President said the government had not failed in addressing the demands of the MNLF or Misuari, who has been critical of the government’s peace talks with the Moro islamic Liberation Front, which had broken away from the MNLF after it concluded a peace agreeement with the government in 1996.
The MNLF guerrillas who occupied at least three seaside Zambonga districts belong to the faction of Nur Misuari, who has complained that the government had failed to fully implement the 1996 peace agreement, prompting him to declare independence for the Bangsamoro Republik.
“The government has not stopped talking with him and the MNLF,” Mr. Aquino said.
He said substantial components of the agreement had been implemented, including the integration of more than 6,000 former rebels into the Armed Foirces of the Philippines.
Responding to a report that Misuari had disowned the actions of the MNLF forces who entered Zamboanga, the President said he heard about it but was not aware that Misuari had condemned his followers actions.
MNLF guerrillas from Basilan, Sulu and Zamboanga Sibugay arrived in Zamboanga City on Monday, claiming that they were scheduled to march to and hold a rally at Plaza Pershing, the city’s central square fronting City Hall. Their presence caused panic among residents in several coastal distgricts and sparked sporadic exchanges of fire with government forces.
Mr. Aquino said the rebels were contained in four districts and “We won’t let them spread more mayhem.”
Mr. Aquino also denied reports that 80 rebels had surrendered Thursday evening.
“The report is wrong. nobody surrendered. There were some who were arrested and others who were driven away,” he said.
In Santa Catalina, three suspected MNLF members were captured and turned over to the police on Thursday night. Another MNLF fighter identified as Bashier Daud was turned over to the military Thursday night due to injury.
Dasta said during a lull in firing Thursday night that he had requested the government troops to secure Daud for medical treatment.
Col. Ignacio Obligacion, chief of the Army’s 102nd Brigade, said they “just accepted this Daud and brought him to the hospital last night for treatment.”
Dasta also said none of his men surrendered, but a few had left them, including the father of former mayor Tahira Ismael of Lantawan in Basilan. He added that two of his men were killed in the fighting Thursday.
But Llenaresas, the 7th Scout Ranger Company commander, said they got information that three MNLF mebers, including a woman sniper, were killed.
Catholic priest Michael Ufana, who had been held hostage by another group of MNLF men, was also freed early Friday morning. He was brought to Camp Batalla for debriefing and medical check-up.
Originally posted at 1:53 p.m.