No safe conduct for MNLF fighters; rebellion raps set
ZAMBOANGA CITY—Rebellion charges will be brought against followers of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) leader Nur Misuari who attacked Zamboanga City on Sept. 9, killing soldiers and policemen in 10 days of fighting, torching hundreds of homes and displacing more than 100,000 people.
Interior Secretary Mar Roxas on Wednesday said the charges would be filed against MNLF members who were either captured or surrendered.
“Those who were captured and those who surrendered will go through the same process,” Roxas said.
“There will be an inquest and rebellion charges will be brought against them based on sworn statements from rescued hostages and eyewitnesses,” he said.
Rebellion charges will be filed against MNLF leaders who will be named by captured or surrendered rebels as responsible for the attack on Zamboanga, Roxas said.
As of Wednesday, 93 followers of Misuari had been captured since fighting started on Sept. 9.
The 23 MNLF members and their leader Usong Uggong who surrendered to Senior Supt. Jose Chiquito Malayo, the city police director, on Tuesday will also be charged.
Chief Supt. Francisco Uyami Jr., of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group, said investigators had collected 159 affidavits from hostages, civilians, police and other witnesses.
Regional Prosecutor Peter Medalle said Justice Secretary Leila de Lima had created a special panel of prosecutors to handle the inquest.
Medalle said the captured rebels and their commanders would likely be also charged with violating international humanitarian laws that forbid taking people hostage and using them as human shields.
Malayo said the 23 MNLF rebels whom he helped in surrendering to authorities on Tuesday afternoon would go through the legal process.
“But they will be taken back to Basilan after the process,” he said.
Clearing house to house
Military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said fresh fighting took place on Wednesday, and troops had orders to “neutralize” the remaining 30 to 40 followers of Misuari who were roaming through houses in urban areas.
“We will continue with our calibrated military response until they are neutralized, either by being killed or captured, or they surrender,” Zagala said.
“We want to let them know there is no dishonor in surrendering, when that saves lives,” he said.
Roxas said the remaining followers of Misuari were boxed in a 3-to-7-hectare area.
“Their area of operation during fighting is limited. They cannot escape to other areas,” Roxas said.
“We are clearing the area block by block, house to house, room to room. This is to ensure that no gunman will be left hiding and they won’t be able to leave booby traps behind,” he said.
Roxas estimated that the gunmen still had 21 hostages.
Chief Supt. Felipe Rojas said sporadic fighting took place Wednesday in Santa Catalina and Santa Barbara villages, where two gunmen were arrested and four high-powered firearms confiscated from them.
Eighty-three MNLF rebels, as well as 11 soldiers and three policemen, and seven civilians have been killed in fighting in coastal villages here since Sept. 9.
Wounded in the fighting were 105 soldiers, 12 policemen, 67 civilians and nine MNLF gunmen.
The rebels seized about 200 hostages, 178 of whom Roxas said had either escaped or had been rescued.
Misuari’s followers torched about 500 houses in Santa Catalina village to slow down the government assault.
The assault began on Friday, and fighting in the last four days sent more residents fleeing from their homes for evacuation centers.
Vice President Jejomar Binay tried to broker a ceasefire that night, but the government balked when Misuari reportedly demanded safe passage for his men.
More residents left their homes on Wednesday when fighting spread to Mampang village, 6 kilometers from Santa Catalina and Santa Barbara villages, where most of the fighting had been going on since Friday.
35 evacuation centers
The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) said the number of evacuees rose to 109,386 on Wednesday from 70,000 on Tuesday. That is roughly 10 percent of the city’s population of nearly 1 million.
Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said the displaced were sheltered in 35 evacuation centers, at least 40,000 of them in the city’s sports complex alone.
Zagala said the military was intent on not allowing Misuari’s followers to escape, with troops blocking strategic routes out to sea.
“We want to finish this in the soonest possible time. But we want to ensure the safety and security of the civilians who are either trapped or being held hostage,” he said.
At the military headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo, Brig. Gen. Domingo Tutaan, spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), said the conflict was taking too long because of the urban terrain that security forces had to deal with.
“The operational environment is different,” Tutaan said.
“As we are continuing our efforts in several areas (where) the armed group is still holed up, the other areas already in government control are now being cleared,” he said.
The villages of Santa Catalina and Santa Barbara remain the focus of operations by the security forces, he said.
Asked if MNLF commander Habier Malik was holed up in one of the two villages, Tutaan said, “Without sacrificing operational matters, yes.”
Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar said she wanted a long-term solution to the crisis.
“I don’t want a repeat,” she said, referring to the 2001 Cabatangan siege where MNLF forces loyal to Misuari occupied the Cabatangan Complex, which houses some offices of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) government, and held at least 70 hostages.
Prior to the Cabatangan siege, Misuari’s men led the attacks on military camps in Sulu.
To end the Cabatangan crisis, the MNLF men were given safe passage and allowed to return home.
“I stand firm. Charges will be filed as lives have been wasted here. I want to see them go to jail and never come back to this city,” Salazar said.
But where is Misuari? Lawyer Emmanuel Fontanilla, spokesman for and legal adviser to Misuari, refused to say where the MNLF leader was.
“Most probably (he’s still in the country). We cannot disclose his location right now for security reasons,” Fontanilla said.
“But we talk regularly by phone. In our last conversation last night, he advised the MNLF forces to maintain a defensive posture,” Fontanilla said.
He said Misuari’s MNLF faction wanted the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the United Nations to facilitate a political resolution to the crisis by initially declaring a ceasefire.
Although sporadic gunfire could still be heard in villages occupied by MNLF forces, most parts of the city have started to return to normal activities.
Business establishments opened on Wednesday. Public utility vehicles also began to ply their routes.
The Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) announced the gradual resumption of commercial flights to Zamboanga International Airport beginning Thursday.
The CAAP also lifted the 40-km radius “no-fly zone” around the airport.
But the fighting has forced the Department of Science and Technology to postpone the qualifying exams for college scholarships originally scheduled for Sept. 22.
Science Secretary Mario Montejo announced on Wednesday the postponement of the exams in Zamboanga City, Dipolog City, Pagadian City and the provinces of Zamboanga Sibugay, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.
A new date for the exams will be announced after the Zamboanga crisis has been resolved.
In other areas, the exams will still be held on Sept. 22.
In Manila, members of Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) and the Federation of Free Workers (FFW) gathered at Plaza Miranda in Quiapo district on Wednesday, lighted candles and called for a ceasefire between government troops and MNLF rebels in Zamboanga City to protect workers and their families there.—With reports from Nikko Dizon, Tina G. Santos, Dona Z. Pazzibugan, Jerome Aning and Miguel R. Camus in Manila; and AFP