ZAMBOANGA CITY: Dozens of separatist rebels, who were fighting security forces in Zamboanga City, had surrendered to the military, far from the police count of 24, fanning speculations that some of those who yielded would be freed without criminal charges.
At least 23 of those who surrendered to the police in the village of Mampang last week were reportedly paid by a politician to stage the drama in an effort to demoralize the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) whose forces attacked several areas in Zamboanga on Sept. 9.
The rebels, led by Commander Usong Ugong, are natives of Basilan province, and were allegedly sent to Zamboanga to take part in the drama. Ugong’s group had been reported to have taken a police official hostage, but authorities had denied this and said the officer was sent to Mampang to negotiate the surrender of the rebels.
Police said at least 247 rebels had been captured since the fighting began.
But the military said 128 rebels were captured and 146 more had surrendered. It said 126 MNLF fighters and 18 soldiers, including five policemen and 12 civilians were killed in the clashes that also wounded over 200 people.
The bodies of rebels killed in the clashes also littered the villages, and troops had to wear gas masks to pull them out.
Troops loyal to MNLF chieftain Nur Misuari attacked villages in Zamboanga and held over 200 people. At least 190 hostages had been freed or escaped from their captors.
Mayor Maria Isabelle Salazar said clearing operations continued in at least five barangays– Santa Barbara, Santa Catalina, Rio Hondo, Mariki and Talon-Talon.
Salazar said text messages of impending rebel attacks caused panic in Zamboanga as skirmishes entered its third week.
Many offices and commercial establishments closed early and sent employees home following reports that rebel leader Ustadz Khabier Malik, a lieutenant of Misuari, would launch his final attack in the city.
Salazar said the 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew will be enforced until the situation returns to normal.
“The curfew will remain as this is our way of also helping our troops in efficiently carrying out their operations and heightened security in all our roads, entry and exit points. We also request all of our people to bring with them necessary identification cards for counter-checking and validation of all our residents, especially while passing through checkpoints,” Salazar said.
On Wednesday, Salazar allowed schools outside the conflict zone to reopen. The Mindpro Mall in downtown Zamboanga also reopened after shutting down two weeks ago because of the violence.
Surprisingly, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas and Defense Chief Voltaire Gazmin, along with Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman, were also present at the opening of a school in Santa Maria and in the mall where Manila-based television journalists tailed and interviewed them.
Critics branded the presence of Gazmin, Roxas and Soliman as mere publicity and called them “epal,” a street slang for a person or politician who wanted to be in the middle of media publicity.
Roxas and Soliman previously gave media interviews inside a refugee tent in Zamboanga and at one time invited television reports to interview him at the pier where workers were unloading relief goods.
Roxas, a key ally of President Benigno Aquino 3rd, is eyeing the presidency, while Soliman is said to be eyeing a senatorial seat in the 2016 elections.
As skirmishes erupted in Zamboanga, a new war is also heating up in social media – the battle for propaganda – where anti-government forces and pro-rebels have stepped up their attacks inflaming the already tense situation in Zamboanga.
In Facebook, Malik is being immortalized by some groups as a hero for fighting their cause and self-determination in Mindanao – they called Bangsamoro Republik.
Others blamed the Aquino government for the violence not only in Zamboanga but in the rest of the southern region where security forces are fighting several rebel and terrorist groups.
Some insisted that hundreds of government soldiers were killed and wounded in the fighting, and that many of the rebels slain were actually civilians shot by security forces.
For pro-government forces, Facebook is a battleground to praise the brave soldiers and policemen and all those who are running the operations to stop the rebels from further inflicting serious damages not only to physical structures in Zamboanga, but the very heart of everybody – Christians and Muslims and indigenous people – who are most affected by the violence.
Pictures of civilians handing out food and bottled water to soldiers and policemen battling the rebel forces and keeping them at bay went viral on Facebook.