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MANILA, Philippines – President Benigno Aquino III has not left Zamboanga City since he arrived there on Friday, September 13. He has not been seen by the public since Saturday, September 14, when he visited refugees at the Joaquin Enriquez Sports Complex.
Aquino’s absence from the public eye is a stark contrast to Cabinet officials consistently speaking to media about the crisis, which entered its 10th day on Wednesday, September 18.
Presidential Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda confirmed on Wednesday that Aquino is indeed still in Zamboanga although “his exact location, we are not at liberty to disclose.”
He would not disclose when Aquino will return, but he earlier said that as Commander-in-Chief, Aquino is giving support and directions to the military and is playing “a big role.”
“He has inspired the Armed Forces there, the police forces, and also the city government,” Lacierda said.
Lacierda also gave assurances that while Aquino is in Zamboanga, he has not neglected his other duties. “He is in touch with the Cabinet officials. He is in touch with the Executive Secretary, so the business of government runs even if he is in Zamboanga,” he said.
As an example, Lacierda said Aquino called Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr on Monday, September 16, to tell him to increase the reward in exchange of information on advertising executive Kae Davantes’ killer to P2 million.
“The President is in touch with all concerned Cabinet secretaries in respect of their response, respective departments and mandates,” he said.
Lacierda also defended the work of intelligence units in relation to the crisis.
“They were able to disperse the MNLF. If you recall, the statement that we issued that there was an encounter by the Navy of some MNLF elements on… I think it was Monday morning. There was an encounter. We had intelligence on MNLF forces trying to amass in Zamboanga. We were able to prevent them and, in fact, we encountered them in a gunfight that’s why they dispersed in Zamboanga,” he said.
“We believe that our intelligence was able to prevent amassing of the MNLF forces.”
The assessment comes amid suggestions from lawmakers that the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) should increase the intelligence fund of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP), following the MNLF’s siege of Zamboanga.
Lacierda said the proposal is “a matter for the legislature to discuss.”
The death toll from the conflict has risen to 101 as of Wednesday, although a total of 164 civilians earlier trapped in the battle zone have regained their freedom. About 126,000 residents have been displaced so far and are now living in 30 evacuation centers in the city.
While flights to and from to Zamboanga are set to resume on Thursday, September 19, following surrenders from some rebels and release of some hostages, Malacañang says the final statement as to when the crisis is over “will be done on the ground.”
Lacierda was unable to give estimates of the damage on Zamboanga thus far. – Rappler.com