‘It ain’t over in Zamboanga’
ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines—It ain’t over.
After almost three weeks of fighting, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin on Saturday clarified the government had accomplished its mission to free all the hostages of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) but the “work is not yet over.”
In a press briefing here on Saturday, Gazmin said the government had accounted for all the hostages but had yet to complete house-to-house clearing operations 20 days after the rebels assaulted the third largest city in the Philippines and took an estimated 195 hostages.
The fighting that ensued left about 218 dead, wounded hundreds more, and sent more than 100,000 residents fleeing to evacuation centers.
The rebel assault, apparently aimed at thwarting a government peace plan with another Muslim separatist group, ground this city of more than a million residents virtually to a halt, razed 10,000 homes and reduced 30 to 40 hectares of once thriving communities to rubble.
It was one of the bloodiest and longest-running attacks by an Islamic separatist group in the south, the scene of a centuries-long Muslim rebellion for self-rule in this largely Catholic country.
Military spokesperson Ramon Zagala declared the threat to Zamboanga “over” while Gazmin and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas were televised visiting Martha Street, the scene of some of the heaviest fighting. But after Gazmin and Roxas left the area, several gunshots were heard. A fire broke out in Rio Hondo.
Leaders evade capture
Neither MNLF founder Nur Misuari nor his top commander, Habier Malik, were captured.
One report said Malik had escaped the military dragnet and had retreated to the Sulu archipelago.
“We have accounted for all the hostages,” Gazmin said, referring to this as “Phase 1” of the operation.
He said the government would now proceed to “Phase 2.” which involves the house-to-house clearing to remove possible booby traps and firearms left behind by the rebels. This could take up to two weeks, military officers said.
“The enemy is reduced to about two or three remaining stragglers,” Gazmin said.
The military would be turning over much of the city’s protection functions to the police. He added: “We will not abandon the police forces here. The AFP will continue to support the police and other local government forces,” he said in Filipino.
On Malik, Gazmin could not say if he was dead or had managed to escape. “We are searching for him among the dead,” said Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, spokesperson of the AFP.
“We are still identifying the bodies through all the tests required to confirm if Malik is one of them,” he said. He said there were 100 bodies taken from the area.
The MNLF forces arrived in the city on Sept. 9. They claimed they were there to march and hold a rally at Plaza Pershing, which is in front of City Hall. Fully armed, the MNLF fighters’ presence caused panic among residents, which led to skirmishes with government forces.
The MNLF forces declared a “Bangsamoro Republik” after claiming that the government had failed to fully implement the peace agreement it signed in 1996.
Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar, in an interview, said it may be over for the military, “but for us civilians it’s not yet over.”
Climaco-Salazar said it will take about a week or two before areas can be declared safe.
“In fact, we are seeking guidance and clearance so we can go back to city hall and work,” the mayor told the Inquirer.
Salazar also asked: “Where is Malik? I have been questioning them on where is Malik.”
The mayor also urged the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) to do its job “and ensure no more of this kind of crisis will happen in Zamboanga.”
On Friday night, Climaco lambasted the OPAPP for supposedly not acting on the problem that led to what was happening in her city.
“There should be continuous negotiations and dialogue and it should never end. Sad to note, there is no presence of the OPAPP. They should be here to openly dialogue and they should continue even beyond this crisis,” the mayor said.
In an earlier interview, Climaco-Salazar told the Inquirer that OPAPP did not heed calls to go to Sulu to meet with Misuari who had long been complaining about the government reneging on the peace agreement.
Chief Insp. Ariel Huesca, spokesperson of the police in Western Mindanao, said that as of noon Saturday, their records showed that a total of 18 soldiers and five policemen had been killed in the fighting.
Over 183 rebels and 12 civilians were also reported killed.
Huesca said 167 soldiers and 14 policemen were wounded. Among civilians, 72 were reported wounded, police said.
Police have also processed a total of 184 former hostages, Huesca said.
On the MNLF side, Huesca said, a total of 167 fighters were killed while 247 were captured.
He added that only 24 MNLF forces were considered surrenderers—those who gave up to Senior Supt. Jose Chiquito Malayo, the city police director, on Sept. 17.
Abigail Valte, a President Aquino spokesperson said government aid agencies would now focus on preparing residents to return to their communities after the police pull out.
“We have allotted money for shelter assistance for the families whose homes have been totally destroyed or totally burned down,” she said. With AFP, AP reports
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