MNLF rebels storm Basilan as Zamboanga clashes continue

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Government soldiers gather for a prayer Thursday before taking positions in Zamboanga City. MNLF fighters took control of several small towns and took scores of residents hostage. AFP PHOTO

Government soldiers gather for a prayer Thursday before taking positions in Zamboanga City. MNLF fighters took control of several small towns and took scores of residents hostage.
AFP PHOTO

ZAMBOANGA CITY: Suspected Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) guerrillas clashed Thursday with security forces in Lamitan City in Basilan, and one civilian was reported killed, officials said.

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The fighting in Basilan erupted as sporadic fighting between MNLF fighters and government troops in Zamboanga City entered its fourth day.

Zamboanga Vice Mayor Roderick Furigay said the fighting erupted in the village of Colonia in Lamitan. “One civilian was killed and another is wounded in the attack,” he said.

The Mindanao Human Rights Action Center said as many as 3,000 people left their homes in Lamitan and sought refuge in schools.

There were reports that members of the Abu Sayyaf, which has links to terrorist organizations al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiya, joined the Lamitan raid.

Prior to the raid, MNLF and Abu Sayyaf rebels attacked a military detachment in the village of Magcawa in Tipo-Tipo town, also on Basilan, according to Capt. Jefferson Somera, a spokesman for the 1st Infantry Division.

He said three soldiers were wounded but the detachment fought off some 150 rebels under Puruji Indama, Isnilon Hapilon, Basir Kasaran and Nurhassan Jamiri.

“We were able to repulse the attack and we still don’t know if there were casualties on the enemy side,” he told The Manila Times.

The fighting in Lamitan and Tipo-Tipo flared as security forces battled rebels who have taken over several villages in Zamboanga City.

Thousands of soldiers and policemen, backed by helicopters and armored vehicles faced about a thousand rebels occupying the barangays of Rio Hondo, Mampang, Santa Catalina and Santa Barbara.

The clashes were so near downtown Zamboanga that the area resembled a garrison because of the presence of so many troops.

A huge fire broke out twice in Santa Catalina and Santa Barbara village near Rio Hondo.

At least six people have been killed and more than 13,000 people have fled the fighting in Zamboanga, and the heavily armed rebels were still holding more than 100 people, including a Catholic priest and his family, hostage in Zamboanga.

The presence of MNLF snipers and the captives have made it more difficult for troops to go near the gunmen and rescue the hostages.

Snipers were also shooting at helicopters hovering above the villages. What is believed to be US spy plane had been flying low over the city every night since the crisis began last Monday.

One of the hostage takers, Pol Aukasa, has told a radio network Radyo Agong, that his group came from Basilan and is under MNLF leader Ismael Dafta. “We have 40 hostages here with, including a pastor (David Nefras) and they are all safe here,” he said.

He also allowed Nefras to speak, who confirmed there were 40 of them, including a dozen women. “We are okay here and we are being treated well. We have enough rice in the house where we are staying, but we fear for our safety because of the bombings and sniping (of government troops),” Nefras said.

A breakthrough in the negotiations with the MNLF fighters loomed after Mayor Maria Isabelle Salazar announced she talked with Misuari on the phone Wednesday night.

Salazar said Misuari disowned the actions of MNLF commander Habier Malik, who led the attack in Zamboanga.

She said she also met with the ulamas or Muslim religious leaders and other religious sectors who were helping find a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

She said she was able to talk on the phone with Father Michael Ufana, a Catholic priest who is one of the hostages in Sta. Catalina.

“I talked with him over the phone and he says he is well,” Salazar said.

As officials in Zamboanga continued negotiations with the MNLF, Loretta Rosales, chairman of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), said on Thursday an MNLF leader belonging to Misuari’s camp was willing to negotiate, but only with one of her commissioners.

Interviewed after the House of Representatives’ Committee Hearing on Human Rights, Rosales said the MNLF commander will talk only with Commissioner Jose Manuel Mamaoag.

“So I said, okay, let’s push for this at least for the moment,” Rosales said.

She made it clear that the agency had not yet relayed the MNLF leader’s request to the concerned authorities like the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPPAP) or the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Rosales said the MNLF commander, who was in close contact with Mamaoag, cannot be named for now for security reasons, but he holds the group of hostages in Lustre, Barangay Sta. Barbara.

Malacañang on Thursday warned the MNLF the government will not hesitate to use force to resolve the Zamboanga City crisis.

”The forces of the state are ready to exercise the resolve of the government,” Palace spokesman Edwin Lacierda said, citing the government “exhausting all avenues” to end the conflict and protect he people in the are.

”While the government is exhausting all avenues for a peaceful resolution to the situation, let it be clear to those defying us that they should not entertain the illusion that the state will hesitate to use its forces to protect our people,” Lacierda said.

”It is time for you to cooperate to resolve this situation peacefully at the soonest possible time,” Lacierda said.

On Thursday, the United States government donated the equivalent of P26.4 million in relief and emergency assistance to the displaced villagers in Zamboanga.

“The United States has always been there for the Philippines in times of need, and we continue that tradition today for those suffering in Zamboanga,” US Ambassador to Manila Harry Thomas Jr. said in a statement.

Through its local partner Growth With Equity in Mindanao (GEM), the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has bought 5,000 bottles of water, 1,500 sleeping mats, blankets, tooth brushes, toothpaste, buckets, and canned goods for the Zamboanga evacuees.

WITH REPORTS FROM CATHERINE S. VALENTE, WILLIAM B. DEPASUPIL AND CAMILLE V. BAUZON

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