Zamboanga City refugees. (Mindanao Examiner Photo)
ZAMBOANGA CITY (Mindanao Examuiner / Sept. 18, 2013) – Intense fighting between security and rebel forces have subsided Wednesday in Zamboanga City in southern Philippines, but sporadic exchange of rifle fire can still heard in at least two villages.
At least 26 commercial banks opened also opened on Wednesday and officials said airport operations will also resume Thursday with preliminary passenger flights by Cebu Pacific and Philippine Air Lines.
Hundreds of rebels stormed several villages on September 9 and took over 180 civilians and used them as shield against security forces, but officials said at least 175 people were freed, escaped or rescued since the violence erupted.
Security officials said 11 soldiers and three policemen, including 81 rebels were killed in the fighting. The clashes forced more than 100,000 people to flee their homes and resulted to a humanitarian crisis in Zamboanga and severely affected the economy of the provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.
Presidential peace adviser Teresita Deles on Wednesday said the violence in Zamboanga cannot be considered as rebellion or terrorism. “What was done in Zamboanga, which was an attack taking civilians as human shield, does not in any way I understand rebellion. That kind of action is not a legitimate act of rebellion.”
“Rebellion is you fight the combatants; you fight the combat unit of government because you don’t accept the authority of the government this is whom you go to. What has happened and (from) what we are hearing from the civilians and that they are now being rescued is that they were really used as human shield. It’s difficult to use terrorism, but it has terrorized the communities,” she told a television interview.
Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said troops are still fighting about five dozen Moro National Liberation Front gunmen under Nur Misuari.
On Tuesday, the local police chief Jose Chiquito Malayo was reported taken by rebels in Mampang village, but managed to negotiate himself out and in a twist of fate also convinced 23 gunmen, including their leader Zum Agong to surrender peacefully in exchange for safe passage back to nearby Basilan province. He said the rebels also surrendered their automatic weapons and grenades and would be returned to the rebels as part of the deal.
Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle Salazar has confirmed the hostage taking and said: “We are deeply saddened by the report that City Police Director OIC Colonel Chiquito Malayo is in the custody of the MNLF. Secretary Mar Roxas will elaborate on this. Let us pray for Col. Malayo’s safety and protection and we look forward that this will have a peaceful end.”
However, Malayo now said he was not taken hostage, but went to Mampang to negotiate for the surrender of the rebels. “We had a meeting engagement and held each other position and almost clash, but eventually we negotiated and the rebels agreed to surrender peacefully on the condition that they would be allowed to return to Basilan with their weapons. We are processing the rebels and they will go home,” Malayo said.
But there were also speculations that the whole scenario was staged and that the rebels were allegedly sent by an unnamed politician to take part in the drama. The allegations cannot be independently confirmed.
Roxas also met with the rebels late Tuesday inside the tightly guarded Western Mindanao Command headquarters, where President Benigno Aquino has been staying since last week and overseeing the government operations against rebel forces.
Ugong, whose base of operation is in Basilan province, said they were made to believed by the MNLF they would be attending a peaceful parade in Zamboanga City, but hostilities erupted. “We hid for days in the thick mangrove forest in Mampang,” Ugong told the Filipino official.
Shortly after news of Malayo’s capture broke out, a rebel spokesman phoned a local radio network dxRZ Radyo Agong and confirmed that the police official and several other policemen were being held captive. The spokesman also demanded an international mediation to end the violence in Zamboanga that had already killed over 100 people.
MNLF chieftain Nur Misuari, who signed a peace accord with Manila in 1996, accused the Aquino government of reneging on the peal deal and launched a new rebellion, the second in more than a decade. In 2001, loyal forces of Misuari also attacked military bases in Zamboanga City and Jolo town in Sulu province and the clashes killed over 100 people.
Indonesia keeps off Zamboanga crisis
Deles said the government asked Indonesia to open their communication lines to assist in finding a peaceful resolution to the Zamboanga incident to which Jakarta agreed and accordingly gave instructions to their embassy in Manila.
“Embassy officials explained to us that this meant that their lines would be open to receive and transmit messages from one side to the other but that they did not see it to be within their role to proactively make a call to either side,” she said.
Deles said they also told Indonesia and the peace committee of the Organization of Islamic Conference the government’s request if they could help in any way in resolving the situation, but none offered a proposal.
OIC willing to help
However, the OIC, in a statement, said it is ready to offer all possible assistance to ease the tension and resume the peace process.
Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the OIC Secretary General, said he is deeply disturbed by the reported resumption of violence in Zamboanga and other places in Mindanao, and condemned the loss of innocent lives and called for calm and maximum restraint to avoid further bloodshed and to allow peaceful resolution to these incidents.
“The OIC strongly rejects all unlawful acts and expresses its deep concern at the shortcomings that occurred in the peace process which led to the resumption of violence and unlawful acts. The OIC calls for the resumption of the Tripartite Review Process as soon as possible in order to attend to the remaining unresolved issues that impedes the full implementation of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement to pave the way for a just and durable peace in Mindanao,” it said.
The OIC also warned against the untimely termination of this process as it will create a vacuum that is not conducive to building peace or enhancing security. (Mindanao Examiner)