With the last hostages rescued from their Moro captors on Thursday night, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin on Friday declared the military’s mission in Zamboanga City as accomplished.
“The mission of the operation was really to rescue and ensure the safety of the hostages,” Gazmin said.
He said government forces rescued 194 hostages, residents of the coastal villages that Habier Malik’s band seized after the military had thwarted the rebels’ attempt to take the city and declare an “independent Bangsamoro Republik.”
Gazmin told the Inquirer that security forces were now conducting a “direct action” on the remaining rebels, primarily to find Malik, commander of the rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) faction led by Nur Misuari that attacked Zamboanga City on Sept. 9, igniting the nearly three-week security crisis here.
Gazmin said the government “overshot” its initial estimate of 182 hostages.
He said security officials were able to determine the real number of hostages from the accounts of captives who had been rescued and from the interrogation of MNLF rebels under custody.
“With that done, we are now starting to locate the leader, Malik. There were so many bodies recovered (Thursday), we just have to identify (Malik). If he is not among the dead, we continue to cordon off and seal the area of conflict,” Gazmin said.
Asked if Malik had been unable to escape, Gazmin replied, “We cannot say that one hundred percent.”
“But we are doing all we can to make sure that this is an airtight containment,” the defense chief said.
Gunfire from Sta. Catalina
Fighting was going on in the village of Rio Hondo while the Inquirer was talking with Gazmin.
Later, two fires broke out in Rio Hondo, and gunfire rang out from Santa Catalina village.
Gazmin said about 15 MNLF rebels were fighting it out with security forces.
He said the Armed Forces was about to take on a “supportive role” from its initial “active role.”
“We are entering into another phase… We will hand over phase two to the (Philippine National Police) to do the mopping up operation, which is the house to house search together with the (local government) and the media so that this will be transparent and they will know what is going on,” Gazmin said.
The military said 19 soldiers, five policemen and nine civilians were killed in 19 days of fighting. One hundred sixty-seven soldiers, 14 policemen and 57 civilians were wounded.
One hundred thirty-eight MNLF rebels were killed, 223 captured, and 52 surrendered.
Can’t relax yet
Military spokesperson Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala told a news briefing here on Friday that the six hostages rescued on Thursday night claimed they were the last captives.
But the military was verifying the information, Zagala said.
“We can’t relax because there might be [others],” he said.
The military said 194 hostages escaped or were rescued during the fighting.
Zagala said government forces were clearing Rio Hondo, Santa Catalina and Talon-Talon villages of the last of the rebels.
“It is important that we search areas to remove threats,” Zagala said.
Aside from going house to house, government troops were also looking into the sewers, which the rebels used not only to hide but also to escape, Zagala said.
Zagala said the military had turned over to the police personal belongings of villagers—cash, jewelry, watches, cell phones—that the rebels seized from villagers.
After the surrender of 70 MNLF rebels on Wednesday and Thursday, only a small band of fighters led by Malik remains unaccounted for.
“What we are doing is continuous clearing and it’s not against a particular person or specific place,” Zagala said.
“There is no such thing as final attack on a specific lair. We are clearing areas and our troops are encountering pockets of resistance,” he said.
Malik not sighted
Chief Insp. Ariel Huesca, spokesperson for the police in Western Mindanao, said Malik had not been sighted during the fighting in Rio Hondo, which began at 12:30 p.m. on Friday.
There were reports that Malik was wounded, but the information could not be independently verified.
Emmanuel Fontanilla, a lawyer and spokesperson for Misuari, said the death of Malik, if he was killed, would benefit the Bangsamoro struggle.
“This will further radicalize the struggle because the government has left us with no other options,” Fontanilla told the Inquirer by phone.
He said more and bigger hostilities would happen if the government refused to allow a “political resolution” of the conflict.
Fontanilla explained that the armed MNLF members who entered Zamboanga City before Sept. 9 were to serve as escorts of Misuari but were not to take part in a “peace caravan” in the city on Sept. 9.
It was the first time that a plan by Misuari to be in Zamboanga on Sept. 9 became known.
Paid to join caravan
A female MNLF member, Misba Baldji, 69, told the Inquirer on Sept. 9 that members of the group were promised P10,000 and livelihood for joining the peace caravan.
Baldji said MNLF members were to march to Plaza Pershing, in front of City Hall, and hold a rally.
“We are here for a declaration of independence,” Baldji said, brandishing an M-16.
“We are ready to die,” she said.
But when presented to reporters on Friday, Baldji, who surrendered on Wednesday, sang a different tune.
“I was told there would be a caravan in Zamboanga City and after attending the caravan, we would be given financial assistance,” Baldji said.
But there was no caravan, she said. “They tricked me.”
Baldji said a certain Haider, an MNLF commander from Zamboanga Sibugay loyal to Misuari, asked her to join the caravan.
She said she was with Ismael Dasta, another MNLF commander from Basilan, on the first day of skirmishes with government troops. She said Dasta’s group took at least 36 hostages from Santa Catalina village.
Dasta surrendered on Thursday.
In Manila, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said on Friday that charges of rebellion and violations of international humanitarian laws would be brought against Misuari and other MNLF commanders for the deadly attack on Zamboanga.
“There are many [MNLF rebels captured or who surrendered] who have been charged, by batches. Our prosecutors have conducted inquest. Those who surrendered go straight to inquest. But those who are not in Zamboanga anymore or those who are still there [holding out] will be charged, including Misuari and other commanders,” De Lima said. With reports from Jerome Aning in Manila; Julie S. Alipala, Inquirer Mindanao
First posted 12:03 am | Saturday, September 28th, 2013
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