ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines – A week after a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front attacked Zamboanga City, government officials still could not say when the fighting would end.
Lt. Col. Ramon Zabala, spokesperson of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said in a news briefing Sunday afternoon, that they had to consider the lives of the hostages.
“Rest assured our troops are moving forward,” Zabala said.
“We can’t give an exact timeline. Our soldiers are doing their best,” he added.
Zabala said over 100 MNLF forces have been fighting government troops in the city.
The MNLF forces identified with the faction loyal to founder Nur Misuari entered the city on September 9.
The MNLF forces said they went to the city to march and hold a rally in Plaza Pershing, which is just in front of city hall. Their presence caused panic among residents and led to skirmishes with government troops. The MNLF fighters have also held civilians, who they used a human shield.
Governor Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao is confident that the crisis in the city will end soon.
Hataman said state security forces have been making progress in clearing areas where the MNLF rebels have been holed up.
“Three days is already too long,” Hataman said.
Mayor Ma. Isabelle Climaco-Salazar had described the MNLF forces as “insurectos” who should “face the full force of the law.”
At dawn on Sunday, gunshots and explosions were heard from the villages of Santa Catalina, Santa Barbara and Rio Hondo, where the MNLF fighters were holed up.
In Santa Catalina, two bodies of MNLF forces were recovered — one on Saturday evening and another on Sunday morning. Four other rebels were also arrested after they were found hiding in a culvert canal.
On Sunday morning, hostages Dr. Clemente Almonte and Pastor David Nifras also escaped from their captors in Santa Catalina.
At around 6 a.m. Sunday, fire broke out near the Land Transportation Office in Barangay (village) Santa Barbara. Firefighters tried to enter the area, but MNLF snipers fired at them.
On Saturday night, nine hostages escaped from their MNLF captors.
On Sunday, fighting reached the city’s famous tourist attraction– Fort Del Pilar.
The number of evacuees has also increased from 62,000 on Saturday to 68,634 by Sunday.
Cesar Cuid, 42, who supports his ailing father and six nephews in Santa Catalina, said he has “run out of money to buy even the cheapest rice for “lugaw.”
Cuid still has to bury his brother, Romeo, who died from heart failure 10 days ago.
Romeo’s wife, a house helper in Manila, could not return home as flights and boat rides to and from Zamboanga have been suspended since Monday.
Since Tuesday, Cuid said he has been going house-to-house asking for rice.
Some residents of Santa Catalina opted to stay home despite the risks of being caught in the crossfire.
“I prefer to sleep in my house while heavy gunfire happen just few meters from where we are,” government employee Romeo Seballo said.
Seballo had tried evacuating to the Don Joaquin Sports Complex, but said “the situation is worse.”
“I don’t think we can stay there longer waiting for our turn for food, water or medicine. I’d rather die fighting here than die of hunger waiting for our turn to be served,” he said.
Immang Madang, a 50-year old Badjao, had begged for the Philippine Daily Inquirer to buy the seaweeds she was selling for P20.
“We don’t have money,” she said.
Aboard a vessel from Isabela, Basilan, at least 208 Muslim pilgrims arrived here Sunday morning. They were on their way to Manila en route to Mecca for the Hajj.
The pilgrims said the conflict would not stop them from completing their pilgrimage.
Mulisin Almakal said he prepared three years to embark on this journey, which he said would be a spiritual fulfillment for him.
“I am happy that we will be able to pursue our pilgrimage. I am also thankful that the leadership of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao took effort to arrange our transport,” Almakal said.
ARMM Governor Mujiv Hataman personally ensured the clearance for the pilgrims’ transport in the city after the wharf was shut down when the fighting escalated.
Hataman said the pilgrims would be transported to Cebu City through a military C130 plane. From there, they will take a commercial flight to Manila and then to Jeddah.
At least 229 pilgrims were also transported to Cebu on Saturday.
Outside the wharf, Wadha Tajuid, 19 and a 4th year student at the Western Mindanao State University here, patiently waited for her turn to be shuttled back to her home in Basilan.
Tajuid said she has heard that fighting has erupted in Basilan but when she got the news that the ARMM government has offered trips to those who would like to go back to their provinces, she immediately grabbed the opportunity.
“We cannot escape fear. But regardless of what will happen, it is more comforting if I am with my family,” Tajuid said.
Hataman said at least 200 families have also evacuated from dangerous areas in Basilan after the skirmishes between state security forces and suspected MNLF and Abu Sayyaf members erupted in Lamitan.
At least 200 students from the Western Mindanao State University and the University of Zamboanga were prioritized for the transport back to Basilan.