Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels took potshots at government troops on Wednesday as they hid behind hostages who were roped together pleading for mercy, on the third day of a deadly siege in a Zamboanga City.
As the fighting intensified with soldiers backed by armored troop carriers hunting down snipers and rebels, an estimated 13,000 residents fled, many of them taking refuge in a sports stadium.
In the nearby Santa Catalina district, troops confronted MNLF guerrillas hiding behind about 30 men who had been roped together and made to stand on the side of a street, Agence France-Presse reporters witnessed.
“Stop firing! Stop firing!” shouted the men while waving white blankets as the gunmen behind them took potshots at the soldiers.
About 180 guerrillas poured into six of the port city’s coastal neighborhoods, home to 160,000 mainly Muslim residents, before dawn Monday in a bid to derail peace talks.
Three days of fighting has left 12 people dead, including two civilians, a police officer, a soldier and eight rebels, according to the latest official tally. Another 36 people have been wounded, including three policemen and 12 soldiers.
Police also arrested two male MNLF suspects in Santa Catalina on Wednesday, wounding one of them. Officers told AFP the men were carrying bags of rice which they had scattered on the floor to reveal two hidden pistols.
In Barangay Santa Barbara black smoke rose into the sky as a local government building burned, but sniper fire held back a convoy of firetrucks sent to put out the blaze, an AFP photographer said.
Behind the burning building two suspected rebel snipers fell from the upper sections of a mosque after taking fire from an armored troop carrier.
Soldiers later poured into the building.
Police fired on rebels who managed to sneak into a neighborhood near Ciudad Medical along Mayor Vitaliano Agan Avenue, a kilometer from the village of Santa Catalina where troops also assaulted rebel positions.
Rebels fired rocket-propelled grenades and mortar rounds at government positions. Two projectiles hit the open-air Catholic shrine Fort Pilar where soldiers were deployed.
Sporadic clashes were reported near downtown Zamboanga where the heavily guarded City Hall is located. Rebels torched civilian houses in Santa Barbara to delay the advancing soldiers.
The MNLF guerrillas, who are followers of Nur Misuari, herded more than 100 people and used them as a shield.
Mayor Maria Isabelle Salazar said the MNLF freed nine hostages, including four children, in exchange for food.
Salazar said negotiations were continuing for the release of the remaining hostages.
“We call on the OPAPP to address the demand and claims of the MNLF,” Salazar said, referring to Secretary Teresita Deles, President Benigno Aquino 3rd’s peace adviser.
Misuari has accused Manila of reneging on the 1996 peace deal it signed with the MNLF.
Police said 4,000 villagers who fled Barangay Mampang were brought by military trucks to the Joaquin Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex in San Jose village where thousands have been encamped since Monday.
Many villagers were pleading the truck drivers not to leave them behind fearing they would be held hostage by rebels.
The fighting has shut down stores and other businesses in the city. Salazar has declared an 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew.
On Wednesday, government panel chairman Miriam Ferrer called the MNLF a “spoiler” of peace for trying to undermine negotiations with its rival faction, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Ferrer made the remark as the two panels issued a joint statement condemning the MNLF attacks in Zamboanga City that resulted in a standoff with government troops since Monday.
“Our response is simple. Will aborting this negotiation make other groups happy and stop their violent acts? Will preventing ourselves from finishing our work enable peace to prevail? Not at all,” Ferrer said, as she emphasized that “their leaders’ goal is to lead people back to the path of violence, using misinformation to justify the use of arms and attacks on civilians.”
She stressed that they “cannot allow this process to fail.”
“We regret that what some leaders cannot get through reason, they twist through misinformation. What they cannot achieve with circumspect and consistency, they attempt to wrestle through force and endless demands. Positions that they cannot win in elections, they coerce on the table, or on the streets, taking with them hostages,” she said.
According to Ferrer, the MNLF members who occupied some coastal villages in Zamboanga were followers of MNLF chairman Nur Misuari and Ustadz Khabir Malik.
The two panels on Wednesday condemned “in the strongest terms” the attack by members of the MNLF.
In their joint statement, the negotiators said “the perpetrators must be stopped and held accountable for their acts.”
“Those behind the continued acts of violence in Mindanao do not want the current peace process between the Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to succeed. Their actions intend to derail the process using violence and disinformation to spread fear and chaos in Mindanao,” they added.
The MILF urged their Muslim brothers “to work together so that the Moro struggle will benefit all.”
The MILF founded by the late Salamat Hashim is a breakaway group of the MNLF, which Misuari formed in the early 70s.
The negotiators are in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to thresh out the remaining details of the final agreement for the proposed Bangsamoro political entity.
Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, chief, Public Affairs Office, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), said government forces will remain on the defensive to give time to the Zamboanga Management Crisis Committee to end the crisis peacefully.
Zagala said the safety of the 168 hostages remains the primary concern of the authorities.
“Nothing has changed. It’s the same, still a standoff,” Zagala said, adding that the Misuari’s followers fire their guns from time and the soldiers were simply firing back.
Zagala said he could not say when the standoff will end because it all depends on the outcome of the negotiations.
The MNLF legal counsel and spokesman Emmanuel Fontanilla said their forces will only release the hostages if the military withdrew from the area.
Zagala said the proposal was “untenable.”
As many as 300 MNLF fighters arrived last Monday at the coastal barangay of Rio Hondo and fanned out to the villages of Sta. Barbara, Sta. Catalina and Talon-Talon.
The military said the raiders broke up into four small groups led by Commander Ugong, Commander Ustadz Asamin Hussein, Commander Habier Malik and Commander Ismael Dasta.
Ugong, with 30 fighters, is in Talon-Talon; Hussen with 18 men is in Sitio Salinas; Malik, who has 80 to 90 men, is in Sta. Barbara; and Dasta with 80 men is in Sta. Catalina.
Several Mindanao-based human rights groups called for a “humanitarian corridor” that will enable them to give aid to the hostages.
The groups include the Alliance of Progressive Labor – Davao, Initiatives for International Dialogue (IID), Mindanao Peoples Caucus (MPC), Peacebuilder’s Community, and SIMCARRD INC.
They said in a statement that a demilitarized peace zone would allow humanitarian aid to reach the hostages.
Zamboanga International Airport remained closed from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. except to military aircraft, the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines said on Wednesday.
Thirty commercial flights to and from Zamboanga were cancelled.
The CAAP advised passengers affected by flight cancellations to contact their respective airlines/carriers for flight schedules.
The aviation authorities said 16 flights of Cebu Pacific were called off.
Cebu Pacific said in a statement that the airline passengers that had been affected by the two-day standoff, from September 9 to 10, had reached 3,000.
Philippines Airlines said all PAL flights from Manila to Zambo and back were cancelled.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) starts its probe to determine the criminal charges that can be filed against the MNLF fighters that attacked Zamboanga City.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima assigned Assistant State Prosecutors Niven Canlapan and Aristotle Reyes, Prosecutor Cesar Angelo Chavez III, Asst. Regional Prosecutor Ivy Damayo-Elvinas and Asst. City Prosecutor Edwinlino Custodio to the fact-finding panel.
“Among the crimes being studied is rebellion. The function of the team is to make sure the proper charges are based on facts and evidence because it would be hard to file rebellion or sedition, for example, without supporting facts and evidence,” de Lima said.
With reports from Catherine S. Valente, William B. Depasupil and Jomar Canlas