Aquino: MNLF diminished, other groups be warned

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines – President Benigno Aquino III said on Thursday, September 19, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) has been diminished in Zamboanga City, and warned other followers of Nur Misuari who may be thinking of launching similar attacks.

Aquino said the government has showcased "overwhelming force," and is ready to crush those who will attempt to terrorize the people. He also gave assurances to Zamboanga City that the siege, which was on its 11th day, wouldn't happen again. 

"How can we say that it won't happen again? Number one, we've diminished their forces. Number two, we demonstrated what government means [it] when we say that we are prepared to respond to whatever challenges confronting us," the President said in a media briefing at the Zamboanga International Airport, where commercial flights finally resumed. 

"If they think that they can match the government's force, they are wrong. I believe we demonstrated the government's strength and that we are ready to use it. Those who are planning to launch similar attacks, you better think twice about it," the President said.

It is not the first time the MNLF attacked Zamboanga City. In 2001, the now infamous Cabatangan siege happened, where the military allowed the rebels to escape in exchange for the safety of the hostages. 

Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle "Beng" Climaco Salazar has been firm in saying she doesn't want another Cabatangan. She wants the rebels jailed.

11th day: Fighting continues

The President has been in Zamboanga City since Friday, September 13. He has been a hands-on Commander-in-Chief, joining command conferences and issuing orders.

"At the end of the day, everything is my responsibility. So I am very involved, from everything to getting briefed and putting some of my inputs into the security operations," he said. 

Thousands of military and police troops were airlifted to Zamboanga City to respond to the crisis. There has been heavy fighting since Day 1. The Philippine Air Force also launched air strikes targetting the position of Habier Malik, Misuari's trusted commander. 

Inspite of the government's overwhelming force, the Zamboanga City crisis has dragged on for 11 days so far. A sniper killed a soldier conducting an early morning clearing operations. More fires broke out. 

ANOTHER FIRE: Over a thousand houses in the coastal outskirts of Zamboanga City have been razed to the ground. Photo by LeAnne Jazul

ANOTHER FIRE: Over a thousand houses in the coastal outskirts of Zamboanga City have been razed to the ground.

Photo by LeAnne Jazul

The government said it has cleared 70% of the original battle zone: the villages of Rio Hondo, Sta Barbara, Sta Catalina, Talontalon, and Mampang. 

City residents are also persevering to regain normalcy. The airport has resumed operations on Thursday with one flight each from Cebu Pacific and Philippine Airlines. Stores, banks, and other establishments have also been opening one by one. 

According to police deputy director for operations Gen Felipe Rojas Jr, Malik is leading a few remaining rebels in their final resistance in pockets of areas in Sta Catalina and Sta Barbara.

The city government has warned residents against fleeing rebels. 

About 200 rebels were involved in the attack, according to military. Out of this number, 108 have either surrendered or were captured and 83 were killed.

More rebels surrended on Thursday. Rojas said they were obviously tired and hungry. They were presented to the media but they could not be interviewed.

Evidence vs Misuari

Misuari earlier denied he was the brains behind the Zamboanga City siege. But Aquino said evidence against him is mounting. 

"We have growing evidence that Chairman Misuari is involved in the attacks," said Aquino. 

In earlier statements, the President was cautious about blaming Misuari for the attacks. He said Misuari's "posturing" was difficult to understand.

"He declared their independence but at the same time invoked the peace process. They assemble with their firearms and call it a 'peace rally,'" he said.

"I think they are trying to push the envelope and test the government's tolerance. They move to a province that is not even a part of the ARMM and they brandish their firearms. They cannot do it. If you terrorize innocent civilians, government is going to respond," Aquino said.

The President said the government will pursue the talks with the other factions of the MNLF. He said he recognizes that not all MNLF support Misuari. 

"We are ready to talk to those who want peace. At the same time, we are ready to move against those who endanger the lives of our people," he said. 

Better intelligence

'TIRED ANG HUNGRY': Another batch of 15 MNLF rebels surrendered to combined forces of the military and the police. Photo by LeAnne Jazul

'TIRED ANG HUNGRY': Another batch of 15 MNLF rebels surrendered to combined forces of the military and the police.

Photo by LeAnne Jazul

President Aquino said the government's "intel services" will also be improved to make sure the siege won't happen again. 

In the same breath, he highlighted how the military was able to prevent Malik's forces from massing up and advancing to the City Hall, where they planned to hoist their flag and declare independence.

"On the second day, we were able to bring our overwhelming force here in Zamboanga City. We were able to contain them inside a few barangays," he said. – Rappler.com