ZAMBOANGA CITY – Security forces were thrown into alert and residents panicked after hundreds of former Moro rebels, many of them armed with anti-tank rockets and automatic weapons, paraded in Lamitan City in Basilan, army officials said.
Officials said members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in military uniform marched through the city, some waving red flags.
MNLF leaders said the march was part of their peace consultation in Basilan, one of five provinces under the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. The show of force was unprecedented in recent decades.
The unannounced parade sent soldiers and policemen scampering for cover and defensive positions as security forces hurriedly put up check points and road blocks to ensure control of the tense situation.
But despite roadblocks, the former rebels insisted on marching through them and further caused tension in Lamitan. Security commanders, in an effort to avert any confrontation, allowed the MNLF members through.
Two army armored personnel carriers were also sent to the city to reinforce troops. Army officials have met with the leader of the MNLF, Nurin Ismael, to convince his group to peacefully leave the city.
Officials said Ismael’s group has apologized to the authorities for the uncoordinated march and eventually returned to their bases.
It was not immediately known why the MNLF forces managed to march to Lamitan undetected by the authorities.
There was no immediate statement from local government officials about the incident, but the daring march by former rebels has proved that security is still a big problem in Basilan province, just several nautical miles off Zamboanga City.
The MNLF under Nur Misuari has signed a peace accord with Manila in September 1996 ending decades of bloody war in southern Philippines. The accord also allowed the MNLF to keep their weapons. After the peace agreement was signed, Misuari became the governor of the Muslim autonomous region, but despite the peace accord, there was a widespread disillusionment with the weak autonomy they were granted.
Iin November 2001, on the eve of the elections in the Muslim autonomous region, Misuari accused the government of reneging on the peace agreement, and launched a new rebellion in Sulu and Zamboanga City, where more than 100 people were killed.
Misuari then escaped by boat to Malaysia, where he was arrested and deported to the Philippines and jailed and released after several years.
Under the peace agreement, Manila will provide a plan to spur economic development in Muslim areas in the South and livelihood and housing assistance to tens of thousands of former rebels.
But Misuari’s fall had split the MNLF. He ran thrice for governor in Sulu province and again in the Muslim autonomous region, but lost. However, Misuari’s popularity among many Muslims remains high and his influence over them is unquestionable.