ZAMBOANGA CITY: Military forces missed the opportunity to arrest the elusive Nur Misuari of the Moro National Liberation Front during a “plenum” he called for, which turned out to be a massive MNLF show of force in Sulu on Friday.
Misuari has been on the wanted list by the authorities for the MNLF attacks on Zamboanga City in 2001 and 2013, which led to the deaths or wounding of more than 300 people in the street battles with government forces in the weeks that followed.
A large group of mostly heavily armed MNLF and Abu Sayyaf rebels turned up for the assembly called for by Misuari on Friday in Indanan town, Sulu, to discuss the upcoming Islamic Inter-Parliamentary Union in Geneva.
Misuari is reportedly planning to attend the international summit despite a string of criminal charges filed by Philippine authorities against him and about 300 others who took part in the Zamboanga siege in 2013.
The plenum had prompted the military to declare a red alert status in Sulu for fear the MNLF and Abu Sayyaf groups might launch fresh attacks against government targets.
The Manila Times sources said the MNLF leader currently based in Sulu managed to pass through military checkpoints and gathered the rebel forces for the plenum undetected.
Now more than 70 years old, the former governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) has narrower support, having control only over the MNLF in Sulu, one of the five provinces of the region, according to reports.
In September 1996, Misuari signed a peace deal with the Philippine government to end decades of a bloody war that made him governor of the ARMM. But widespread disappointment ensued over what his group claimed was a weak form of autonomy granted to the region under the peace accord.
Under the peace agreement, the Philippine government was to provide a mini-Marshal Plan to spur economic development in Muslim areas in the south, including livelihood and housing assistance to tens of thousands of former rebels to improve their living conditions.
In 2001, Misuari’s loyal forces and former MNLF rebels who joined the Philippine Army following the September 1996 peace deal attacked a key military base in Jolo town.
Misuari then escaped by boat to Malaysia, where he was arrested and deported to the Philippines and was eventually pardoned and released by President Gloria Arroyo, in exchange for MNLF support to her election bid, as well as her allies in the Senate and Congress in 2004.
But Misuari was also ousted by his foreign affairs chief Parouk Hussin, along with Muslimin Sema, a senior leader, and other senior leaders that made up the so-called Council of 15.
Sema’s group previously appointed Misuari as chairman emeritus, but he declined the post. Sema had criticized Misuari for dragging the MNLF into disarray. The Council of 15 also accused Misuari of being incompetent as governor of the ARMM.
Misuari’s fall had severely affected the MNLF, which is now heavily divided, with a rift among its leaders becoming more apparent. Misuari also ran thrice for governor of Sulu province while under detention, but lost by a wide margin.