ZAMBOANGA CITY—The government will bring criminal charges against Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) leader Nur Misuari for a deadly attack on Zamboanga City, President Aquino said on Sunday as he left to return to Manila with government troops engaging Moro rebels in close-quarter combat.
“Our investigators are making sure that Misuari will be made to answer for all this,” Aquino told reporters at Philippine Air Force Edwin Andrew Air Base shortly before boarding a Lear jet to return to Manila.
“We now have witnesses who will directly link him to this conflict and the charges are being prepared by the Department of Justice (DOJ),” Aquino said.
“We have to show that if you cross the line and break the law, we are obligated to go after you and make you accountable to the law,” he said.
More state prosecutors have been sent to the city to interview hostages and gather evidence against Misuari, the President said.
The Philippine National Police has brought rebellion and criminal charges against 29 followers of Misuari who have been arrested or surrendered.
State Prosecutor Aristotle Reyes on Sunday said the first group of Misuari’s followers to face charges included Habier Malik and three other MNLF commanders who were still at large and reportedly still involved in the standoff with government troops.
The charges filed against the rebels included occupying communities and holding residents hostage in violation of a Philippine law that upholds international humanitarian conventions, officials said.
There is “smoking gun” evidence against many of the rebels, Reyes said.
“Many of them were captured during gun battles,” he said.
Misuari not ignored
Aquino maintained that the government never ignored Misuari and the MNLF despite a preliminary peace agreement with the MNLF’s rival group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
A final peace agreement now being hammered out by government and MILF negotiators in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, would also benefit the MNLF, Aquino said.
The final peace agreement, which both the government and the MILF hope to sign before President Aquino’s term ends in 2016, includes an expanded Moro autonomous region in Mindanao, which will be developed to create economic opportunities for residents of the Muslim-majority area.
But Misuari opposes a separate peace agreement with the MILF and insists on the full implementation of the final peace accord that the MNLF signed with the government in 1996, including the development of an autonomous region for Muslims in Mindanao.
Protesting the deal with the MILF, about 200 rebels from the MNLF faction led by Misuari stormed into Zamboanga City in boats on Sept. 9, took over several coastal villages, seized civilians hostage, burned hundreds of homes and used their captives as human shields to thwart a military assault.
The President flew into Zamboanga on Sept. 13 to take direct command of military operations, with about 4,500 soldiers and policemen deployed to the city to crush Misuari’s deadly attempt to derail a final peace agreement between the government and the MILF.
Military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said on Sunday that 102 rebels had been killed, with 117 others arrested in two weeks of fighting.
Thirteen soldiers, three policemen and 12 civilians have been killed. One hundred twenty soldiers, 13 policemen and 69 civilians have been wounded.
More than 170 hostages have been freed or able to escape, Zagala said.
Aquino said the government’s firm response would have impressed on Misuari’s followers the high price of mounting similar challenges to state authority in the future.
“It should not happen here anymore but in case it does, our security forces are ready,” he added.
Aquino said consideration for the safety of the hostages was the reason the military operation was taking too long.
“If we were sure that only the enemies were there, we would have used aircraft, heavy weapons and artillery. But we purposely withheld using the heavier stuff and [went] as surgical as possible to ensure the safety of the citizens,” he said.
“Perhaps all this is ending today,” he said.
As the President was speaking to reporters at the air base, military helicopters launched air strikes on rebel positions in Santa Barbara village. Minutes later, fire broke out in the village.
The military said there were just several dozen rebels left, holding at least 20 hostages in one neighborhood of dense clusters of homes.
“We’re now engaged in close-quarter combat; we are going from house to house, room to room,” Zagala said.
In Malacañang, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said military choppers were dropping flyers to the holdouts, urging them to surrender.
“Some are responding. We [hope] everyone will respond,” Valte said.
The clashes over two weeks have reduced six villages on the Zamboanga coast to ashes and rubble.
Supt. Dominador Zabala Jr., the city fire marshal, said initial assessment showed that 1,367 buildings and houses in the villages of Santa Catalina, Santa Barbara, Mariki, Rio Hondo, Zone 4 and Mampang were razed during the fighting.
Professor Alih Aiyub, secretary general of the National Ulama Conference, blamed the devastation and humanitarian crisis on the use of violence to resolve the standoff.
Aiyub said the government and the crisis management committee should have worked toward the declaration of a “humanitarian ceasefire” right on the first day of the conflict.
Aiyub said a military solution could be launched at a different time and in a different location.
“They can file charges against these people then later go after them in Jolo. In the mountains, no civilians will be affected,” he said.
He said the ulama (religious leaders) in Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi were willing to help mediate between the government and the MNLF to halt the hostilities.
Aiyub said the crisis management committee created a panel for the negotiations, with one of the ulama as a member. But the plan for negotiations changed after the President arrived in Zamboanga City.
Hours after Aquino arrived on Sept. 13, at least seven armored personnel carriers launched an assault on Santa Catalina, sparking heavy fighting and sending residents fleeing to the city center, adding to the more than 62,000 who had fled other villages as the rebels stormed ashore on Sept. 9.
The fighting has displaced 118,819 people, who are jostling for space in Zamboanga City’s main sports complex and more than 50 other evacuation centers in the city.
The sports complex has become a tent city, with more than 45,000 evacuees seeking shelter there.
The bleachers have been converted into beds while the field and courts are being used for pitching tents.
Feeding the thousands has posed problems for the Department of Social Welfare and Development, which has engaged private food providers and volunteers, and appealed to the public for more food aid to deal with the humanitarian crisis.—With reports from TJ Burgonio in Manila; Julie S. Alipala, Inquirer Mindanao; and AFP