ZAMBOANGA CITY: After three weeks of intense military operations against Muslim rebels who led a simultaneous attack in Zamboanga City in southern Philippines, security officials on Sunday claimed to have recovered the identification card of Ustadz Khabir Malik from one of the slain raiders.
Malik, a lieutenant of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) chieftain Nur Misuari, led the September 9 assault in villages here.
Army Major Angelo Guzman, the military’s deputy public affairs chief, said they are checking whether the body is Malik’s.
One intelligence source has said that Malik may have already escaped from a military dragnet on the second week of fighting after negotiations for their surrender failed. Malik reportedly escaped on a speedboat with his trusted men and left behind a rag-tag army of fighters to hold off advancing security forces.
It was not immediately known whether Malik—who is facing rebellion charges along with his men—has returned to Sulu province or sought safe refuge in nearby Basilan province. The report cannot be independently confirmed, but security officials, quoting former hostages freed by rebels, said Malik is still in Zamboanga.
Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, chief of the military’s Public Affairs Office on Sunday admitted that soldiers are searching for Malik and are closely examining the bodies of the slain rebels to find out if the MNLF leader was among the dead.
He said the clearing operations are being done “slowly but surely” because soldiers are also searching and removing bombs and other ordnances left behind by the rebels that may endanger returning residents.
“We are doing it by sector. There are the stragglers that are still hiding and we have to remove unexploded ordnances, like grenades and mortars. We were given approximately two weeks to finish the clearing (operations),” Zagala said.
He said Malik, is he is still alive, may be in the area but has no more command and control.
“We believe that he is still here because he vowed that he will die here. Actually we are looking at some possibilities but I cannot reveal them at the moment but we believe he never left,” Zagala said.
The rebels launched the attack after Misuari accused the Aquino government of reneging on a peace accord signed 17 years ago. After the peace agreement was signed, Misuari became the governor of Muslim autonomous region. But he and many former rebels were disgruntled with the accord, saying, the government failed to comply with some of its provisions and uplift their standards of living.
They accused the government of failing to develop the war-torn areas in the South, which remain in mired in poverty, heavily militarized and dependent financially on Manila.
Misuari remains in hiding and was last reported to be on the islands surrounding Tongkil town and is reportedly planning to escape to Malaysia or Indonesia and travel to a Muslim country to seek political asylum after Manila included him in rebellion charges along with Malik’s group, according to another intelligence source.
There were also reports that Malik’s relatives have seized Misuari and blamed him for the deaths of many MNLF fighters in Zamboanga City.
Troops hunted the remnants of the rebel group on Sunday, with residents hearing gunfire a day after the military declared an end to its three-week campaign.
The army announced on Saturday that police were taking over from troops to clear sections of the vital regional trading center of MNLF stragglers.
But just minutes after the military said the threat to Zamboanga was over, soldiers killed three MNLF fighters in a clash that also left six troops wounded.
“What happened was not organized resistance. These are stragglers trying to escape capture,” Zagala said on Sunday, adding that only a handful of rebels remained.
“The mission is completed. We have already neutralized the threat to Zamboanga City.”
Fighters swarmed into the city’s neighborhoods 20 days ago, taking hostages and triggering weeks of violence as they sought to derail peace talks between the government a rival guerilla rebel faction.
More than 10,000 homes were razed to the ground forcing over 100,000 people—around a tenth of the city’s population—to flee.
The latest clash put the toll at 189 MNLF fighters killed, with 292 captured or surrendering, while 23 soldiers and police and 12 civilians had also been slain.
A total of 195 civilian hostages had been rescued with no more believed to still be in the hands of the gunmen, Zagala said.
Muslim rebels have been fighting since the 1970s for an independent or autonomous homeland in the south of the mainly Catholic Philippines. An estimated 150,000 people have died in the conflict.
The MNLF signed a peace treaty in 1996 that granted limited self-rule to the south’s Muslim minority.
However the group is opposed to a planned final peace deal between the government and the remaining major Muslim rebel group, the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The MNLF believes the deal could leave it sidelined.
Malacañang on Sunday said that the government will file charges against Misuari in the “coming days or weeks.”
Strategic Communications Secretary Carandang said that all reports and evidence are being studied by the Department of Justice for the filing of appropriate charges.
“What we have done here, based on who we have captured and the Misuari fighters that have been [seized], has degraded the ability of Misuari to create these kinds of situations. So malaking blow ito sa mga pwersa ni Misuari,” he added.
Carandang said that clearing operations continue in the villages occupied by the rebels in Zamboanga.
”It’s not completely over yet. Meron pa ring clearing operations, so hindi pa po back to completely normal ‘yung sitwasyon sa Zamboanga [There are still clearing operations ongoing and it’s not really back to normal],” he said.
President Benigno Aquino 3rd earlier said that about P4 billion has been allotted for Zamboanga’s reconstruction.
WITH A REPORT FROM AFP