Soldiers arrive to reinforce their colleagues on the fourth day of a stand-off between the army and Muslim rebels in Zamboanga City yesterday.
ZAMBOANGA: Philippine President Benigno Aquino visited a southern city infiltrated by Muslim rebels yesterday, vowing to end the crisis and warning the gunmen against harming civilian hostages or resorting to flagrant destruction.
Aquino urged the port city of Zamboanga to stand firm as Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fighters battled troops and set fire to homes for a fifth day in a bid to derail efforts to end a long Muslim rebellion.
“Our forces and equipment on the ground are overwhelming,” Aquino told a news conference, while stressing there were no shortcuts to resolving the crisis without risking heavy casualties.
Officials said nearly 200 Zamboanga residents have been seized and are being used as human shields by gunmen holding out in parts of six coastal districts of the city.
“We cannot rush this. We have to be deliberate in order to ensure no lives are lost unnecessarily,” Aquino said. “We’re not setting a deadline but we have decisive points. If they harmed hostages, resorted to arson and crossed other lines that should not be crossed, our security forces have instructions on what to do.”
At least 22 people have been killed and 52 wounded in Zamboanga, while 19 of the gunmen have surrendered or been captured, military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala said.
Groups of at least 100 Muslim gunmen also attacked nearby Basilan island on Thursday and yesterday, killing one person and wounding 11 others, Zagala said.
Three successive blasts from either mortar shells or grenades later struck near a military unit battling rebels in the Santa Catalina section of Zamboanga on Friday afternoon, wounding five Red Cross workers and two soldiers.
Nearby, a male hostage was shot in the back as he ran for safety towards military lines.
At least 24,000 people have fled the fighting, and more residents are being ordered out of neighbourhoods where up to 180 gunmen have been holed up since Monday, Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said.
“There are many houses on fire. They (rebels) may be using these to divert attention and get everybody busy with these so that they can, I guess, escape,” she told ABS-CBN television.
“They’re also probably running out of food.”
Authorities were concerned they might use the remaining civilians in the conflict areas as human shields to escape, Soliman said.
A large convoy of vehicles was seen leaving the conflict zones yesterday, carrying hundreds of civilians, after the Zamboanga government passed an ordinance ordering all 160,000 residents in these areas to leave. Police checked their identification papers to make sure no rebels slipped out. Chief Inspector Ariel Huesca, a police spokesman, said the areas occupied by the gunmen were “shrinking”.
A second military spokesman, Brigadier General Domingo Tutaan, said: “We envision that there will be a peaceful result to this with the armed men laying down their arms and releasing the civilians.”
Aquino warned other groups could launch “opportunistic” or “sympathetic” attacks, but added: “If they try elsewhere I am confident that our forces will be ready to meet them head-on and prevent any more atrocities.”
The crisis began when government forces blocked armed followers of MNLF founder Nur Misuari from marching on the Zamboanga city hall before dawn Monday.
Misuari accuses the government of violating the terms of a 1996 peace treaty by negotiating a separate peace deal with a rival faction, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The Milf is in the final stages of peace talks with Manila and is expected to take over an expanded autonomous Muslim region in the south by 2016. The deal seeks to end a Muslim insurgency that has killed some 150,000 people in the south since the 1970s. Misuari is not engaged in negotiations, but is open to the idea, his spokesman Absalom Cerveza said.AFP