THOUSANDS of battle-hardened Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fighters from all over Mindanao are ready to reinforce their comrades in Zamboanga City who are caught in a standoff with government security forces, a ranking rebel leader said on Tuesday.
According to Ustadz Pendi Colano, chairman of the Selatan State Revolutionary Committee, some 5,000 members of the MNLF sub-wing Command in Central Mindanao are closely following the developments in Zamboanga.
“If the government will push the MNLF in Zamboanga against the wall, then our forces here in Central Mindanao are ready to reinforce [them]”, Colano told The Manila Times.
He estimated that the MNLF has 150,000 combatants, including young warriors, who are able to deal a serious blow against the government if further provoked. This is contrary to insinuations that the group is already a “spent force.”
“We are for peace as we want to achieve it, but it’s President [Benigno] Aquino [3rd’s] administration that broke the peace we wanted,” Colano said.
MNLF chairman Nur Misuari, he added, could no longer patiently wait for what Aquino had to say regarding the 1996 peace agreement forged between the government and the MNLF because he showed no interest in discussing terms with the MNLF leader.
“When will Aquino start the roundtable of talks with the MNLF to discuss what was left undone with the signed 1996 peace agreement? He (Aquino) did not even send us a signal,” Colano stressed.
Besides its regular troops, he said the MNLF still enjoys the support of indigenous tribes around Mindanao.
“We are facing a serious war if this will not be settled immediately,” Colano warned.
Intact and ready
For his part, Suharto Sabirin, the MNLF protocol officer, claimed that the MNLF remains intact and its army ready to wage another war for the independence that they seek.
“Instead of settling what was left undone, President Aquino would plunge Mindanao into another war, something that the Aquino administration cannot afford to have at this time,” Sabirin said.
Quoting Misuari, the MNLF official claimed Aquino should be blamed for what is now unfolding as another protracted war.
In a separate phone interview, Sabirin said that Misuari thought Aquino destroyed the “dream for peace” that thousands have paid for with their blood. Likewise, he said the President seriously violated international laws when he ignored the 1996 peace deal and signed a new pact with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
“But filing a case against President Aquino’s administration before the International Court of Justice would just be a waste of time,” Sabirin pointed out.
He said that the MNLF leadership is now strongly determined to fight and assert Mindanao’s independence.
“We’d rather fight for our independence than abide with the head of state who was the one violating the Philippine laws,” Sabirin quoted Misuari as saying.
Aquino signed the Bangsamoro Framework agreement with the MILF and brushed late last year, enraging the MNLF whose peace accord was “internationally recognized by the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC).”
“President Aquino has closed his ears and does not want to listen to the voice of the MNLF and now what if we are the ones who would no longer listen to him? How would he feel?” Sabirin said, again quoting Misuari.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) leadership placed on red alert all its forces under the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom), which has jurisdiction over the whole of Western Mindanao, including Sulu, Basilan, and Zamboanga Sibugay provinces.
Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, chief of the AFP Public Affairs Office, said that the Crisis Management Committee of Zamboanga City has convened with Mayor Beng Climaco as chairman.
Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Domingo Tutaan said soldiers repulsed an attempt by armed groups believed to be members of the MNLF to enter Zamboanga City to reinforce their holed-up comrades.
Tutaan said that joint members of the Naval Special Operations Group and Western Mindanao Command engaged the armed men in a firefight at around 4 a.m.
The armed men he said tried to enter from the sea going towards the coastal barangays of Rio Honda, Sta. Catalina, Sta. Barbara and Talon-Talon where some 200 MNLF members are holed up.
Zagala, meanwhile, explained that that the rationale beyond the red alert order was to prevent the spill over of the ongoing conflict in Zamboanga City.
“We’re preparing for contingencies in other areas so that this will not be replicated, we do not want a spill over in other areas,” Zagala said.
“We have established the necessary units and necessary forces thereat to prevent similar incidents. So the Western Mindanao Command has already alerted all units concerned and prepared contingencies for such,” he added.
Zagala claimed the AFP is also ready to augment the 1,500 soldiers deployed in Zamboanga if needed. As of the moment, the AFP is standing down, he said meaning they are “not yet conducting offensive operations.”
Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Gregory Fabic also said on Tuesday that they have deployed seven fast boats and elite troopers to Zamboanga.
They consisted, he said, of two patrol gunboats , two multi-purpose assault craft, a diesel fastcraft, four teams of Naval Special Operations Unit special boat teams, two sniper teams, one explosive ordnance disposal team and some 100 Marines.
Meanwhile, the military expressed confidence that the estimated 7,000 MNLF who were integrated into the military and police services would not join their former colleagues in battle.
“We trust our MNLF integrees and they are loyal to the Republic of the Philippines,” Zagala said.
“They are part of the AFP for the past two decades. They have shown their dedication and loyalty,” he added.
One of the provisions of the 1996 agreement was that 5,500 MNLF guerrillas would be integrated into the military and 1,500 others into the Philippine National Police (PNP).
Zagala even cited as an example the case of Major Alin Kannung, executive officer of the 32nd Infantry Battalion based in Basilan, who died in an ambush last April in Albarka, town, a known bailiwick of the terrorist Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).
In the wake of the Zamboanga standoff, the governments of the United States, United Kingdom and Australia advised their citizens against traveling to the region and nearby provinces.
Although the degree of the travel warning against the whole country did not change, the three nations did warn their citizens against traveling to most of Mindanao, including the Sulu Archipelago and the Zamboanga Peninsula.
Washington advised Americans in Zamboanga City to find shelter to avoid becoming involved in the fighting.
In Malacañang, President Aquino said that there is no need to place Zamboanga City under a state of emergency because there are enough security forces to repel the rebel group.
”Kahapon adequate ang forces natin sa loob ng Zamboanga City. Palagay ko ngayon overwhelming na. Marami tayo ini-airlift na mga tropa, kasama na ang mga elite forces. Ang pagkakaintindi ko medyo kalmado ang sitwasyon,” he added.
Aquino is getting updates on the situation from Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas 2nd whom he sent there to assess the situation.
The government’s priority for now, he said, is to ensure or enhance the safety of people in the area.
At the same time, Mr. Aquino said that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is studying the possibility of filing charges against Misuari for his alleged role in the Zamboanga attack.
For the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), however, the siege on Zamboanga was a war crime and serious violations of International Humanitarian Laws (IHL).
Human rights chair Loretta Ann Rosales, in a statement, condemned the actions of the MNLF as she decried the group’s violent encounters with government forces that displaced thousands of residents in just two days.
“The rule of law is likewise blatantly disregarded with impunity in the acts of the MNLF,” Rosales said. “Not only have they taken hostages and taken arms against the government, they have also attempted to fly their own flag in the City Hall of Zamboanga.”
“While the Commission is in agreement with an all-inclusive peace process, it has to be stressed that the road to peace and progress in Mindanao can never be reached through lawlessness and violence,” she added.
The CHR reported that the number of evacuees passed the thousand mark Monday night. It said that 174 families are sheltering at the Tetuan Parish while 231 families are at the Zamboanga Grandstand.
In Congress, an opposition leader slammed the inability of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) to prevent internal threats despite having hefty intelligence funds.
Rep. Toby Tiangco, secretary general of the United Nationalist Alliance, questioned what he considered a massive failure of intelligence on the part of the DILG and the PNP to prevent, if not detect, the MNLF aggression.
“Is the DILG going through an intelligence crisis? There were already indications and leads that members of the MNLF were being mobilized. Either the DILG and PNP failed to correctly assess the information, or the DILG’s height of negligence,” Tiangco stressed.
He said that the Zamboanga incident is not the first time that the DILG and the PNP were caught flatfooted, since law enforcement agencies were not able anticipate the bombings in Cagayan de Oro on July 26, in North Cotabato on July 31, and in Cotabato City on August 5.
“Given the many security lapses that happened under their noses, the Zamboanga attack once again exposes the DILG’s inability to abate internal threats,” he added.
The DILG is asking for P360 million for its intelligence fund, P100 million higher than the intelligence fund of the Department of Defense (DND) which is P246 million.
At least 24 commercial flights were cancelled on Tuesday, according to the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP).
Cebu Pacific Air said flights that were cancelled are 5J-859/5J-860 (Manila-Zamboanga-Manila), 5J-851/5J-852 (Manila-Zamboanga-Manila), 5J-839/5J-840 (Zamboanga-TawiTawi-Zamboanga), 5J-203/5J-204 (Cebu-Cagayan de Oro-Cebu), and 5J-845/5J-844 (Cagayan de Oro-Zamboanga-Cagayan de Oro).
Flag carrier Philippine Airlines (PAL) earlier said all of its Tuesday flights going to and from Manila and the Zamboanga airport had been cancelled as reports of continued fighting in the city.
WITH REPORTS FROM JEFFERSON ANTIPORDA, RITCHIE HORARIO, JING VILLAMENTE, TITUS EDISON CALAUOR AND BENJIE VERGARA