MNLF rebels torch houses amid standoff
ZAMBOANGA CITY – Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels set to fire a residential building and other houses in a heavily populated area in Barangay Sta. Barbara, sending government troops, policemen, and firemen rushing to the scene.
Several minutes later, the fire at the back of the Sta. Barbara Elementary School began spreading to other houses in the barangay and in nearby Barangay Lustre.
Residents tried to salvage some of their belongings inside their burning houses but were prevented by government troops guarding the area.
The latest MNLF action heightened fears gripping residents of the city as government troops and MNLF fighters continued sporadic gunbattles in Barangay Sta. Barbara, just a few meters away from the Zamboanga City Hall, the seat of the local government here.
The MNLF forces numbering about 600 are also occupying the adjacent barangays of Sta. Catalina, Rio Hondo, Mariki, part of Talon-Talon, and Kasanyangan.
MNLF forces in Barangay Sta. Barbara have holed themselves inside a mosque, concrete residential houses, elementary schools, and in some high-rise buildings. MNLF snipers in these buildings have been shooting at government soldiers trying to approach the area.
At 3 a.m. yesterday, some 30 armed MNLF members, tagging along civilians as human shields from Barangay Mampang, were spotted proceeding to Barangay Sta. Catalina but were blocked by policemen and soldiers from Task Force Zamboanga (TFZ) who were manning several checkpoints.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said it is “standing down” to pave the way for a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Zamboanga City.
Thousands of government security forces were deployed in and around the city to ensure that MNLF rebels still holed up in the villages of Talon-Talon, Sta. Catalina, Sta. Barbara, and Kasanyangan would not be able to escape the military’s cordon or get additional reinforcements.
According to AFP public affairs office (PAO) chief Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, the military’s primary concern at the moment is the safety of those being held hostage by the rebels.
Zagala said the troops will not also advance into the MNLF position unless ordered by higher authorities.
As the Zamboanga crisis entered its second day, authorities claimed that at least 168 hostages are still being held hostage by followers of MNLF founding chairman Professor Nur Misuari.
At least six hostages, all from Barangay Talon-Talon, were released by the MNLF rebels around 8:30 a.m. yesterday.
Field reports showed that at around 7 a.m., a priest identified as Fr. Michael Ufama, along with two others, were allegedly seized by armed men in front of their residence in Martha Drive, Barangay Sta. Catalina.
Flights Still Suspended
With no easy end in sight for the siege in Zamboanga City, the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) has suspended indefinitely commercial flight operations at the Zamboanga International Airport. Affected flights include 10 Cebu Pacific flights between Zamboanga and Manila, Zamboanga and Cebu, Zamboanga and Tawi-Tawi, Zamboanga and Davao and Zamboanga and Cagayan de Oro.
Meanwhile, flag carrier Philippine Airlines posted 14 affected flights because of the siege. The affected flights include service between Zamboanga and Manila, Zamboanga and Cebu, Zamboanga and Tawi-Tawi, Zamboanga and Jolo, and Zamboanga and Davao.
Both air carriers offered free rebooking for all of the passengers affected by the flight cancellations.
No Emergency Yet
President Benigno S. Aquino III said yesterday the government has no immediate plan to place Zamboanga City under a state of emergency despite the tense standoff between MNLF forces and state forces. The President said he does not expect the tension in Zamboanga City to escalate, citing government efforts to resolve the conflict.
“At this time, wala pa,” the President said in a media interview after attending the 7th ASEAN Navy Chiefs’ meeting in Makati City, when asked if there is a need to declare a state of emergency in Zamboanga City.\
There is no evidence yet linking Misuari to the attack by gunmen that paralyzed the city of Zamboanga, Aquino likewise said.
Misuari however is not yet off the hook after the President disclosed the Department of Justice (DOJ) is already studying the charges that may be filed against the former ARMM governor.
The United Kingdom, Australia and Canada have joined the United States in advising their respective citizens against any travel to the Zamboanga region due to ongoing clashes between Philippine security forces and armed insurgents of the MNLF.
In separate travel advisories, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Australian government, and The Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada advised their respective citizens against all travel to south-west Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago.
The US already advised its citizens against any travel to the Zamboanga region due to ongoing clashes there.
3,000 Families Displaced
Almost 3,000 families were displaced by the ongoing conflict between government forces and the MNLF in Zamboanga City, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) said yesterday.
Secretary Corazon Soliman said 2,912 families composed of 9,440 individuals have been displaced by the armed conflict.
The displaced families are temporarily staying at the city grandstand, Tetuan Church, Tetuan Elementary School, Mampang Elementary School, Talon-Talon National High School, and the DPWH compound which are used as evacuation centers. (With reports from Genalyn D. Kabiling, Jenny F. Manongdo, Ellalyn B. De Vera, Anjo Perez, Roy C. Mabasa, and Charissa M. Luci, and Edd K. Usman)