Military action vs rebels continues-A A +A
Sunday, September 15, 2013
ZAMBOANGA CITY -- Government troops continue to battle their way into the coastal villages where Muslim rebels have held residents hostages in a standoff that have killed 56 people and displaced more than 60,000, officials said Saturday.
The standoff now on its sixth day continues even after Vice President Jejomar Binay announced late Friday that Nur Misuari, chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), agreed to a truce.
Binay flew to Zamboanga City Saturday to help deal with the crisis.
In a statement released Saturday night, the Vice President said his efforts to secure the release of the hostages in Zamboanga City did not prosper.
"Both the MNLF and the Philippine government wanted peace, but there were terms set that were not acceptable," the statement said. The statement failed to elaborate what terms were not acceptable.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, who has been helping deal with the crisis in Zamboanga City, said the rebels have continued to fire in violation of the agreement.
"Everybody wants peace, to stop this without more bloodshed," Gazmin told DZBB radio network. "But as we speak, there's firing so there's no cease-fire. We agreed that government forces will not fire only if the MNLF will not open fire."
Military spokesman, Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, said they have not received any order regarding the ceasefire and have continued their operations.
Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said government forces surrounding about 200 fighters from the MNLF rebel faction have started to advance and slowly retake rebel-held areas and clear roads in villages in the coastal outskirts of Zamboanga.
Zagala said the offensive was "calibrated" to protect a still-unspecified number of hostages still held by the rebels.
"It's not an all-out war," Zagala clarified.
Troops have not resorted to heavy artillery fire, rockets or launched airstrikes to protect the hostages and civilians, officials said, adding that 47 of the 56 deaths were from the rebel ranks while four civilians were killed, along with two soldiers and three policemen.
Aside from the hostages, the rebels reportedly detonated bombs to set dozens of houses on fire to slow the troops' advance. In rebel-held Santa Catalina village, an AP photographer witnessed how troops advanced behind armored carriers to retake a road stretch only to be stalled by rebel fire, clusters of burning houses and apparent hostages yelling, "Don't fire, don't fire."
Several hostages have escaped, but it remained unclear how many remained in rebel custody.
President Benigno Aquino III said more firefights were expected but assured more than 62,000 displaced villagers being sheltered at a sports complex in Zamboanga city that the rebels' capability to sow trouble has been degraded and the government was working to end the crisis soon.
Although the fighting has been contained in just three coastal villages by Saturday, Roxas said the danger to the trading city of nearly a million people remained serious and its international airport would have to remain closed, along with the main seaport.
A military helicopter securing Aquino was fired upon in the city Saturday, Roxas told a news conference without giving other details.
The hostage standoff, the most serious security crisis Aquino has faced since rising to power in 2010, unraveled Monday when troops foiled an attempt by the rebels, who arrived by boat from outlying island strongholds, to march and hoist their flag at Zamboanga's City Hall. They barged into five coastal villages and took more than 100 hostages as human shields.
The Chief Executive visited Saturday morning the evacuees in Zamboanga City affected by the ongoing standoff.
"What I will do now is go around the entirety of Zamboanga. This problem of ours is getting closer to resolution. True, there will still be skirmishes, but they did not succeed in their grim intentions," he told the 7,000 families or 44,000 individuals evacuated in Joaquin F. Enriquez Sports Complex.
"And I am telling you: Things are changing. From time to time… we are progressively reducing the possibility of wreaking havoc here in Zamboanga City, and we will end this in the soonest possible time," he said.
The President meanwhile assured that the food and other supplies in Zamboanga would last at least for two weeks.
From the beginning of the crisis, he said that the Department of Health has also been prepared with the health centers ready to respond to even the worst cases.
"So I hope that you will not give up and that you will keep the faith; you are not alone in these times, and your government is truly focused on ensuring that all your needs are met," Aquino said as he asked patience for the people in Zamboanga.
"Again, I ask for your patience: our work here is not easy, but if everyone cooperates, the burden that each one of us carries will be lessened," he said.
"I strongly appeal to all of you: Do not worry. We have your back. That will not happen. We have certain things we expect of one another so that we can help each other more efficiently," he added.
Zamboanga City Mayor Isabelle "Beng" Climaco-Salazar, meanwhile, urged her constituents to remain united and strong.
"In this time of crisis, I call on all our people to remain united and strong. Our faith as a people is unshakeable. This is not an issue of religion for we have co-existed peacefully and worked harmoniously," she said in her statement which was posted on her Facebook account.
Climaco-Salazar also called the attack against her city an act of misguided people.
"This is an issue of people with misguided principles using arms to propel their ideology. This conflict has shown how galvanized and united we are as a city.
Together we can rise up from this climate of fear and doubt and come out better Zamboanguenos and a more peaceful Zamboanga that we all hope for," she stressed.
"Six days after the spate of incidents in our beloved Zamboanga City–innocent lives have been lost, properties have been damaged and our economy paralyzed. The image of Zamboanga, which we painstakingly tried to restore, was instantly vanished because of this senseless act perpetrated by a group of misguided elements," Climaco-Salazar pointed out.
The Moro insurgents, led by rebel leader Nur Misuari, signed a peace deal in 1996, but the guerrillas did not lay down their arms and later accused the government of reneging on a promise to develop long-neglected Muslim regions in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation. The government says Misuari kept on stalling and making new demands.
The rebels have become increasingly restive in recent months as they were overshadowed by a rival rebel group, which have engaged Aquino's government in peace talks brokered by Malaysia.
The talks have steadily progressed toward a new and potentially larger autonomy deal for minority Muslims in the south.
Misuari has not been seen in public since the standoff began.(AP/SDR/PNA/Sunnex)