ZAMBOANGA CITY—Just as more hostages regained their freedom, it was reported that armed followers of Nur Misuari seized no less than the city’s police chief and his two police escorts in an encounter in Barangay Mampang here on Tuesday morning.
Shortly after 6 p.m., however, Senior Supt. Jose Chiquito Malayo, the Zamboanga City police chief, was freed under still unexplained circumstances.
But it turned out he was not kidnapped at all.
Interviewed by the Inquirer, Malayo said he was not sure if he was a negotiator or a hostage. What he was certain of, he said, was that the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) group led by Usong Uggong was trapped in a mangrove area in Mampang.
“I went there, spoke to them, and they told me they wanted to go back to Basilan,” he said. Uggong claimed that his group never joined in the nine-day crisis.
“The group of Usong Uggong never took part in the siege of Zamboanga. When they entered Zamboanga and discovered there was fighting they started moving back and they were trapped in a mangrove. I took the opportunity to talk to them,” Malayo told the Inquirer.
“At first nagkatutukan kami (pointing gun at each other) but sensing their situation, I tried to convince them and assured them their rights will be respected.”
“They told me they wanted to return to Basilan and I assured them we will do our best for as long as they didn’t join Misuari.”
Malayo waved and smiled at the Inquirer from a passing mini-bus. He was with at least 23 MNLF rebels, who reportedly surrendered.
The police officer was able to convince the rebels to surrender, Armed Forces spokesperson Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said last night.
The police chief’s capture earlier that day was confirmed by Senior Supt. Edwin de Ocampo, logistics officer of the regional police in Western Mindanao. “He is alive. We have spoken to him over radio communication,” De Ocampo told the Inquirer.
Ninety-nine people have died and 70,000 residents have been displaced in more than a week of clashes between government forces and the MNLF members. This included 86 rebels, nine security forces and four civilians.
Misuari, 71, has been angered by a planned peace deal between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a rival group with 12,000 gunmen, as he believes it would sideline his organization.
Three soldiers and 30 MNLF rebels were killed during heavy fighting over the past 24 hours, Zagala said.
“But when you compare the loss of three lives of soldiers doing their mission to the 124 hostages who were rescued, I believe they did not die in vain. They gave their lives to rescue these 124 hostages,” he said.
Hundreds of other civilians remain trapped as the rebels sought shelter in the seaside villages, with the military saying they were using residents as hostages or human shields.
“Encounter here in Mampang,” was Malayo’s last text message to the Inquirer from Sitio (settlement) Bilang-Bilang in the coastal village. An earlier text message sent around 9:18 a.m. said, “Napasabak kami (We have figured in an encounter).”
Malayo was directed by his superiors to assess the situation at Arena Blanco in Mampang.
“The headquarters issued general guidelines to ground commanders and gave them a free hand to assess the situation, so Malayo saw there was hope talking with the MNLF and he went to their area with this confidence that he will not be taken,” said Chief Supt. Felipe Rojas, police director general for operations.
Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II said that before the incident, Chief Supt. Juanito Vano, the regional police director, went to Mampang and talked to Malayo.
Roxas said that after an earlier fighting in the area, Malayo went to an MNLF position “in the course of resolving the situation peacefully.” The officer was confident because 400 police personnel were in the area where 20 MNLF men were holed up in a mangrove area.
“There, he was held hostage,” he said.
Lawyer Emmanuel Fontanilla, spokesman of the MNLF’s Misuari faction, confirmed to the Inquirer by phone that its “ground forces” were holding Malayo and his police escorts as “prisoners of war.”
Fontanilla refused to disclose the location of the rebels holding Malayo, but said “the cops were transferred to a safe place to ensure their security and rights as guaranteed by the Geneva Convention and the International Humanitarian Law.”
“Pursuit operations are now ongoing with the Air Force conducting reconnaissance,” Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc, head of the military’s 7th Civil Relations Group (CRG), told reporters in Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City.
The MNLF men dragged Malayo and his escorts to a speedboat and fled to nearby Tictabon Island, Cabunoc said. “Only mangroves separate the mainland from that island,” he said.
As of 3 p.m., bursts of gunfire could still be heard in Mampang as hundreds of residents again hurriedly left their homes. Most of them had just returned from the sports complex where they had been staying for days.
“We thought our sacrifices had come to an end. When we went back yesterday because the village was declared cleared, gunfire erupted again. When will this stop?” a fleeing resident told the Inquirer.
The military said on Tuesday that a sustained offensive, which began on Friday and included helicopter rocket attacks, was proving a success. Zagala said soldiers had taken back over 70 percent of areas held by the MNLF forces.
However, Zagala said about 100 MNLF fighters were still engaged in clashes, and it remained unclear how many were still trapped or being held hostage.—With reports from and Karlos Manlupig, Inquirer Mindanao; Nikko Dizon in Manila; and AFP