MANILA, Philippines — It’s not getting any better.
Followers of Nur Misuari launched more attacks on the fourth day of the bloody standoff with government troops in Zamboanga City, firing at least 8 mortar rounds towards a government-held area Thursday afternoon, September 12, and burning structures in the coastal barangays they’re occupying.
“The rebels set on fire no less than 20 houses. We need firemen here quickly to save the people’s homes,” Army Capt Henry Bual told AFP as smoke blackened the skies above Barangay Santa Catalina.
The escalation of violence prompted Malacañang to issue a warning. “Let it be clear to those defying us that they should not entertain the illusion that the state will hesitate to use its forces to protect our people,” Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda said in a statement.
Military intelligence shows that about 200 Moro National Liberation Front members led by 5 commanders have taken 180 hostages from residential villages of Zamboanga City. Armed Forces spokesperson Brig Gen Domingo Tutaan said it’s not easy to launch an attack because it could put the lives of civilians in danger.
“They use the civilians in the area as human shields. That is the reason why since the start it was really complicated for the security forces to just launch an attack. There are civilians. We cannot simply just go in and start shooting there,” Tutaan said.
There are about 80,000 residents in the coastal barangays where the rebels are holed out. At least 15,000 have fled the area; they’re now staying at a sports stadium in the city.
Firefight spreads to Basilan
At least two gun battles also erupted in nearby Basilan province between Army’s 3rd Scout Ranger Battalion and combined forces of the MNLF and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). At least 4 were reported killed — 3 rebels and 1 former soldier. At least 12 are wounded — 7 rebels, 2 soldiers, 3 civilians. One civilian is missing.
Armed Forces public affairs chief Lt Col Ramon Zagala said the Basilan attacks could be a divertionary tactic.
“It’s possible there’s a spillover to ease the tension here (Zamboanga City) to divert our attention there. Kahit pagsabayin natin ‘yan, pwede,” Zagala said.
Despite the reported denial of Misuari, founding chairman of the MNLF, that he instigated the attacks in Zamboanga, the military maintains the rebels belong to a faction of the MNLF that Misuari leads.
“We in the armed forces of the Philippines based on intelligence gathered we believe that he is really the one behind [the attacks in Zamboanga City],” said Zagala.
Misuari is opposing the peace pact between the government and rival group Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
In Zamboanga City, the rebels are supposed to be contained in the coastal barangays of Rio Hondo, Sta Barbara, Sta Catalina, Kasanyangan, Talon-Talon, and Mampang. But gunfire was reported in Barangay Tetuan on Thursday. On Wednesday, September 11, fighting also spread to two other barangays not within military lines: Canelar and San Roque.
Zamboanga City has 98 barangays.
There are military lines meant to prevent them from advancing to the heart of city. A naval blockade was also set up to prevent the gunmen from escaping towards the sea or getting reinforcement from other islands.
There are fears that small groups of rebels have punched through military lines, which could explain the sporadic firefights outside the cordoned area.
“There are no reports on the matter but you must understand that one who just blends in completely [in the community] would be able to get away with it,” said Tutaan. — with reports from Agence France-Presse