Philippine rebels demand safe passage, free Catholic priest

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Moro rebels have freed a Catholic priest on Friday, but held on to over 100 others as government negotiations continue in an effort to free the remaining captives safely, officials said.

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But in the restive province of Basilan, fresh rebel attacks on Friday killed 2 people and wounded seven more in Lamitan City. Six other people were reported missing and it was not immediately known whether they had been held captive by Moro National Liberation Front and Abu Sayyaf rebels.

The Mindanao Human Rights Action Center reported that fighting broke out in at least 5 villages—Colonia, Campo Uno, Kulay Bato, Maganda, and Bulanting.

Officials in Zamboanga City said Father Michael Ufana was released at around 6 a.m., but there were no reports about his father and sister who are among civilians being held by Moro National Liberation Front rebels in the villages of Santa Catalina and Santa Barbara.

“We are happy that they have released Fr Michael, but there are still hostages with the MNLF warriors. I appeal to them to free all the hostages and end this [crisis]peacefully,” Congresswoman Lilia Nuno told a local radio network dxRZ Radyo Agong.

The priest has met with security and government officials who have been talking with several rebel commanders inside the military’s Edwin Andrews Air Base since Thursday evening.  Other sources said the priest was released by rebels to bring their demands to authorities. One of their demands is a safe passage out of Zamboanga. “The priest has become an emissary for the MNLF,” the source told The Manila Times.

The release of the priest came as President Benigno Aquino arrived in Zamboanga to personally see the situation in the city. Aquino was briefed by security officials about the worsening situation in Zamboanga and later spoke to soldiers where he also distributed boxes of chocolate bars.

Aquino said authorities are gathering enough evidence to file criminal against those behind the violence in Zamboanga.

The rebels—headed by Ustadz Haber Malik, a lieutenant of MNLF chieftain Nur Misuari—have accused Manila of reneging on a 1996 peace deal. Misuari has disowned Malik’s actions, according to Mayor Maria Isabelle Salazar, who spoke on the phone with the former Libyan firebrand.

Salazar did not elaborate on details of her conversation with Misuari. But Misuari’s spokesman Absalom Cerveza on Friday has denied Salazar’s statement. “I phoned Chairman Nur Misuari to get a clarification about this and he told me that he did not disown Malik’s actions,” he said.

The military blamed Misuari for the violence. Manila also issued an ultimatum to rebels to end the fighting in Zamboanga, saying the government is prepared to exercise its resolve by using force.

“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. Instead, it is time for you to cooperate to resolve this situation peacefully at the soonest possible time,” Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda said.

Sporadic fighting stopped late Thursday after government negotiators managed to strike a cease-fire agreement with rebels while negotiations are going on, but heavy fighting resumed Friday in areas controlled by rebels.

Rebel forces fired anti-tank rockets and mortar projectiles on security forces in Santa Catalina where houses burned and two civilians were wounded in the sporadic clashes which so far had killed at least 4 soldiers and policemen; including two civilians since day one and that the fighting had forced over 24,000 people to flee their homes.

Authorities said a still undetermined number of rebels were also slain in the clashes.

The Zamboanga City Council also approved an ordinance—five days after the rebels attacked—implementing a forced evacuation of civilians in the villages of Rio Hondo, Santa Barbara, Santa Catalina, Talon-Talon and Mampang.  It also passed a new resolution abiding by whatever decision Aquino takes to resolve the crisis which is now entering its 6th day.

In Sulu province, the reigning Sultan of Sulu and North Borneo, Sultan Muedzul-Lail Tan Kiram, said the violence could have averted if only the Philippine government and the MNLF have shown bilateral interest to continue the peace talks.  He also sympathized with the victims of the violence in Zamboanga.

“The Royal Sultanate of Sulu is for peace and development and therefore I am calling on the Philippine government and MNLF to continue the peace talks and immediately start a dialogue to prevent more casualties on both sides and on innocent civilians,” he said.

The fighting had stranded hundreds of travellers after authorities suspended all air and sea travels in Zamboanga City as a safety precaution to civilians.

Isabela City Vice Mayor Abdulpaki Ajibon has used his boat to ferry more than 500 mostly students and employees, stranded in the Port of Zamboanga. It was not immediately known why the navy or coast guard have not provided vessels to ferry the passengers. Ajibon’s boat brought the passengers to Isabela City.

A huge group of travelers bound for Manila are still stranded in Zamboanga City and many have returned to their homes and relatives here as they wait for news when the airport would open.  The Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines has suspended all flights until September 16.

A scheduled flight on Friday morning by an air force transport plane to ferry stranded passengers and bring them to Cebu province for their flight to Manila was also cancelled for a still unknown reason. But the military planes are also being used to transport troops and war equipment to support ground forces fighting rebels in Zamboanga. AL JACINTO

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