Day 15 of Zamboanga siege: Lieutenant diesBy Nikko Dizon, Julie S. Alipala Dennis Jay Santos
Inquirer Mindanao, Philippine Daily Inquirer
ZAMBOANGA CITY—A junior Army officer who was wounded in fighting here on Saturday died in hospital early on Monday as security forces pounded Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) positions on the coast to put an end to the two-week-old crisis.
The death of Army 2nd Lt. Florencio Mikael Meneses at 4:40 a.m. brought to 14 the number of soldiers killed since fighting between government troops and rebels from the MNLF faction led by Nur Misuari started on Sept. 9.
Military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said 138 soldiers had been wounded in skirmishes with the MNLF rebels.
Meneses was 27, a 2011 graduate of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA), and assigned to the 7th Scout Ranger Company of the 3rd Scout Ranger Battalion.
Meneses was wounded as he and his men were pressing clearing operations in Santa Catalina village on Saturday. He was hit in the abdomen, and was taken to hospital in critical condition.
Zagala said the sister and the fiancée of Meneses arrived early Monday from Manila to see Meneses in the hospital.
When they arrived in Zamboanga City, they were told Meneses had died, Zagala said.
Hours before Meneses died, President Aquino, who had been here for 10 days overseeing the military operations, said the state would bring criminal charges against Misuari for the deadly attack on Zamboanga City.
About 200 followers of Misuari stormed into Zamboanga City in boats early on Sept. 9 with a plan to march to the city center and plant the flag of the “independent Bangsamoro Republik” at City Hall.
But government troops intercepted the rebels on the coast and tried to push them back in skirmishes through seaside villages.
Their plan foiled, the rebels took over several villages, seized scores of civilians and used them as human shields to thwart an assault by the military.
Aquino arrived in Zamboanga City on Sept. 13 and, after negotiations for the release of the hostages failed, ordered a “calibrated” assault to put down the MNLF’s challenge to government authority.
Zagala on Sunday said 103 rebels had since been killed and 118 others had either surrendered or been captured.
Three policemen and 12 civilians had been killed in the fighting, and 13 policemen and 69 civilians had been wounded.
With the rebels under heavy pressure, more than 170 hostages managed to escape or were freed by government troops, Zagala said.
To slow the advance of the security forces, the rebels torched hundreds of houses in at least four villages.
Before he returned to Manila on Sunday, President Aquino promised the people of Zamboanga City that the state would make Misuari answer for the devastation and the suffering his followers had inflicted on them.
“We now have witnesses who will directly link him to this conflict and the charges are being prepared by the Department of Justice,” Aquino said.
The Philippine National Police has brought rebellion and criminal charges against 29 of Misuari’s followers who surrendered or were captured during the fighting.
It was unclear what military officials had decided, but Aquino said the conflict was coming to an end.
Hours after the President left, government troops advanced and military helicopters launched air strikes on the rebels’ positions.
Zagala said the troops were engaging about 40 holdouts led by MNLF Basilan commander Habier Malik in close-quarter combat.
The troops were fighting house to house, room to room to flush out the holdouts and free about 20 hostages they were still holding, Zagala said.
“There is still no indication that they will surrender, but they have been firing back less,” Zagala said on Monday.
The holdouts appeared to be holed up in reinforced houses and they sniped at advancing government troops through holes they had punched through the walls, Zagala said.
The authorities ordered a forced evacuation of residents in Talon-Talon village on Monday morning as fighting went on there and in the villages of Santa Catalina and Rio Hondo.
Fire broke out again in Santa Catalina and another village, Santa Barbara, as troops battled the rebels.
Two weeks of fighting had displaced 118,819 people who jostled for space in the city’s main sports complex and other evacuation centers.
Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman on Monday said the evacuation centers were down to 35 from 57 after the small ones had been merged to enable faster delivery of provisions to the evacuees.
In Manila, Misuari’s camp said on Monday he was ready to face the charges the government would bring against him, but the MNLF would file a countersuit against the government for “war damage” inflicted on Zamboanga City by the conflict.
Lawyer Rixie Efren Bugaring, who said he was Misuari’s lawyer in Manila, told a news forum at the Manila Hotel that Misuari’s followers had planned a “peaceful caravan” but the military “cornered” them, forcing them to defend themselves.
Bugaring said MNLF members from other parts of Mindanao, including Tawi-Tawi, Basilan and Sulu, planned to converge on Zamboanga City to hold a “peaceful revolution for independence.”
The MNLF chose Zamboanga City because Misuari is from there, Bugaring said.
From Zamboanga City, the MNLF members planned to proceed to mainland Mindanao to show that they were for independence, he said.
“But they were stopped by military forces, and there was a misunderstanding that resulted in the lighting of a candle that could no longer be stopped,” Bugaring said.
“I was told that the damage to Zamboanga City was the responsibility of the government,” Bugaring said, referring to statements by MNLF spokesman Absalum Cerveza that it was the government security forces that wrought destruction on the city and that the “Bangsamoro Republik” would sue the government for “reparation.”
“I don’t know at this point what charges they are going to file,” Bugaring said. “They believe that they are an independent state. According to them, they already have a constitution of the Bangsamoro Republik and they also have their penal laws.”
Promise of money, guns
Gov. Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) said Misuari had promised to give P10,000 and a gun to fighters who would help declare Bangsamoro independence in Zamboanga City.
“We have a report that he’s now in Sulu, not in the mainland, but on an island. He’s mobile,” Hataman told reporters after a Senate hearing on the ARMM budget for 2014.
Hataman declined to name the island.
He said MNLF fighters who had surrendered had told the authorities that Misuari convinced them to sail to Zamboanga City, promising a monetary reward from the United Nations and a firearm if they succeeded in declaring independence in the city.
“Misuari told them to go there and they would be paid by the United Nations. If they would go to Zamboanga City and succeed in raising the (Bangsamoro) flag, the UN would declare them independent, and they would be paid P10,000 each through ATM,” Hataman said.
“They were told they would get the money once a UN peacekeeping force arrived, plus a firearm,” he said.
The United Nations has twice denied the plan, Hataman said.
Who’s the financier?
Magdalo representatives called on the government on Monday to investigate who had financed the MNLF’s attack on Zamboanga City, saying they had received information that someone had provided financing for the rebels to stir up trouble.
Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano said the MNLF rebels could not have sustained the attack without financial support.
He said he had received raw information that somebody had given MNLF subcommanders P40 million to stir up trouble in Zamboanga City.
“I shared the information with intelligence units and they’re validating it,” Alejano told reporters in the House of Representatives on Monday.
Alejano said it was possible someone who had been dragged into the pork barrel scandal was behind the challenge to government authority.
Magdalo Rep. Francisco Ashley Acedillo said the attack on Zamboanga City could be a diversionary tactic to take some heat off someone involved in the pork barrel scam.—With reports from Erika Sauler, TJ Burgonio, Leila B. Salaverria and Cynthia D. Balana in Manila