Palace: Zamboanga crisis is over-A A +A
Saturday, September 28, 2013
MANILA (Updated)-- A deadly three-week standoff between government troops and the followers of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) leader Nur Misuari, who held nearly 200 people hostage in the Zamboanga City, has ended with all of the captives safe, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said Saturday.
"I can say that the crisis is over. We have accomplished the mission," Gazmin told The Associated Press by telephone from Zamboanga, where he helped oversee a government offensive and hostage rescue mission by about 4,500 government troops and police.
Gazmin said only a handful of MNLF rebels remained in hiding and are being hunted by troops in the coastal outskirts of Zamboanga city, adding authorities were trying to determine if rebel commander Habier Malik, who led the September 9 siege, was dead.
More than 200 people were killed in the clashes, including 166 rebels, in one of the bloodiest and longest-running attacks by a Muslim group in the south, scene of decades-long Muslim rebellion for self-rule in the largely Roman Catholic country.
Gazmin said 195 hostages were rescued, escaped or were freed.
The gunbattles, including exchanges of grenade and mortar fire, forced more than 100,000 residents — nearly 10 percent of the population of the bustling port city — to flee their homes to emergency shelters, including Zamboanga's main sports complex. Thousands of houses were destroyed in the fighting.
Police and troops still have to clear areas of the dangerous leftovers of the fighting, including unexploded bombs and possible booby traps, Gazmin said.
While the Zamboanga crisis was over after the rescue of the remaining hostages, Gazmin said that operations continue against the group of Habier Malik, one of Misuari's commanders responsible in the standoff.
In an interview over dzRB Radyo ng Bayan, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said the Palace has always maintained that it was up to the leaders on the ground when to declare the conclusion of the military operations.
"We were dealing with the situation that it will be the officials on the ground who will be making the announcement based on their assessment. Remember that our task from Day One is to ensure the safety of the hostages that were taken; to ensure their safe recovery, as well as to get civilians out of harm’s way and that has already been accomplished," she said.
Valte also said President Benigno Simeon Aquino III has allocated P3.89 billion for the reconstruction of Zamboanga City after the widespread devastation.
She said this will include the rebuilding of homes of families who lost their houses to the heavy fighting between the government forces and the MNLF.
It was reported that Vice President Jejomar Binay said they were drafting a Public Partner Partnership for the housing projects in Zamboanga City to help the people restart their lives.
With regard to calls by some groups to intensify government efforts to protect children in the evacuation centers, Valte said different government agencies are working together to address the concern.
Recent reports said there are cases of sexual assault, prostitution, and the trafficking of children in evacuations centers in Zamboanga City.
"We acted swiftly, as well as the local government in that case of the six-year-old that was allegedly molested by a family member in the evacuation center. The action there was very swift and, in fact, the suspect is already under the legal process," Valte said.
"The DSWD (Department of Social Welfare and Development), along with other agencies on the ground, are working to ensure that the children there, not just for their safety physically, but also the psychological state ng ating mga kabataan na nandoon," she added.
The Department of Education is also a major partner, Valte said, noting that the department started training teachers to enable them to guide their students in light of the Zamboanga City situation.
The siege began when heavily armed insurgents arrived by boat from outlying islands but were blocked by troops and policemen, who discovered what authorities said was a rebel plan to occupy and hoist their flag at Zamboanga's City Hall. The rebels then stormed five coastal communities and took residents hostage and were surrounded by troops.
President Benigno Aquino III, who flew to Zamboanga, ordered an offensive after the rebels refused to surrender and free their hostages.
The rebel faction involved in the fighting dropped its demand for a separate Muslim state and signed an autonomy deal with the government in 1996, but the rebels did not lay down their arms and later accused the government of reneging on a promise to develop long-neglected Muslim regions. (AP/SDR/Sunnex)