Government forces pounded the positions of Moro rebels holding hostages in a village in Zamboanga City, less than half an hour after President Benigno Aquino III on Friday warned the insurgents that the state would not hesitate to use force to end the standoff.
Mr. Aquino flew to Zamboanga City where government security forces were battling about 200 rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) faction led by Nur Misuari, calling the insurgents’ attack on the city a “desperate” act to derail peace talks to end four decades of Muslim rebellion in Mindanao.
The President rallied the troops and visited thousands of residents displaced by the fighting between the security forces and the rebels who were holding about 100 hostages whom they used as human shields to stop a direct military assault.
At 1 p.m., less than 30 minutes after the Commander in Chief spoke, the government forces opened fire on the rebel positions in Santa Catalina.
At least 22 people have been killed and 56 others wounded in five days of fighting between government troops and the Moro rebels.
Military press officers said that of the dead, two were soldiers, three were policemen, two were civilians, and 15 were Moro rebels loyal to Misuari.
Wounded were 28 soldiers, six policemen and 18 civilians.
Nineteen MNLF rebels have either surrendered or been captured, the military said.
The figures did not include casualties in fighting late Friday afternoon.
A hostage who tried to escape was shot in the back as he ran toward a military position. Identified as Jun Sepada, the hostage died in hospital later.
Sepada was the 23rd to die since the crisis began on Monday.
At least four Red Cross responders and a policeman were injured in a grenade explosion late in the afternoon.
The Philippine Red Cross pulled out its responders from “critical areas” in the city after the incident.
The military denied a report released on an online news site on Thursday night that 80 MNLF fighters had surrendered.
Ismael Dasta, leader of the MNLF rebels in the village, had been calling for a ceasefire since Thursday night.
Where’s the ceasefire?
Friday morning, Dasta told the INQUIRER that his group had opened lines for negotiations and a ceasefire.
When the military began pounding his position, Dasta called the Inquirer again, angrily demanding to know what was going on.
“What’s this? Where is the ceasefire? We have been talking since last night, and this morning, and now this, we are being bombarded,” Dasta said.
The rebel leader refused to identify the people he had been talking with.
Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, a spokesperson for the military, said lines of communication with the rebels remained open, but they still refuse to surrender.
“We’re negotiating,” Zagala said, refusing to elaborate.
At the height of the military operation, another fire broke out on Lustre Street in Santa Catalina.
It was not immediately known how the fire started, but on Thursday the rebels torched houses on Lustre Street and Martha Drive as government forces pounded their positions in the village.
At the height of the fighting on Thursday, fire broke out at Zamboanga State College of Marine Sciences and Technology motorpool in Rio Hondo village.
Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar said on Thursday that Misuari, in a telephone conversation with her late Wednesday, had disowned Habier Malik, the commander of the MNLF fighters who attacked the city.
Talking to reporters during his visit on Friday, President Aquino said he heard the report but had not heard Misuari condemning his followers’ violent acts.
A government source said that Malik, who is also the MNLF commander in Basilan province, was killed in the fighting.
But Lt. Gen. Rey Ardo, chief of the military’s Western Mindanao Command, said the report about Malik’s death was still being verified.
Ardo said the reports about Malik and “some commanders” getting killed in the fighting were “sketchy.”
The rebels fought with mortars and grenades to stop five military armored personnel carriers from getting closer to their position in the village.
The source said Malik was killed inside one of the houses in Catalina Homes Resettlement Area in Santa Catalina. With reports from Nikko Dizon and Philip C. Tubeza in Manila; AP and AFP