Day 16: Malik's trusted commander captured

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines (Updated) — The government captured a Moro National Liberation Front  (MNLF) commander "trusted" by identified leader Ustadz Habier Malik.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said Commander Salip Idjal and 8 other MNLF fighters pretended to be hostages. They joined 6 other civilians rescued by the combined forces of the military and the police on Tuesday, September 24.

"We rescued hostages. One of them pretended to be a hostage but he was in fact an MNLF commander trusted by Malik," Gazmin said. "This is a good development."

Commander Idjal was later presented by the Zamboanga City police. He told reporters MNLF founder Nur Misuari and Commander Habier Malik told them they were joining a "peace caravan."

Idjal has a message to fellow MNLF fighters: "Sana kayo diyan sa labas, mag-isip isip muna kayo. Tingnan ninyo nangyari sa amin. Nahirapan sa hindi totoo na sinasabi," he said.

Almost over

On Day 16 of the siege, Gazmin can now say it's almost over. He said the area of constriction is now small — 100 meters by 100 meters involving 5 structures. 

"We will say it's over when it's over. Almost," he said.

Clearing operations by the police and the military continued on Tuesday. Rojas said security forces also enforced blockades to stop the rebels from escaping.

Police deputy director general for operations Gen Felipe Rojas Jr told Rappler there are 2 or 3 houses where MNLF showed "heavy firepower."

On Monday, September 23, joint forces of the PNP Seaborne and the Philippine Navy fought it out with MNLF rebels at a mangrove in Barangay Talon-Talon, Rojas said.

Heaving fighting during the night forced residents in nearby barangay Tugbungan to evacuate.

Another fire broke out in the battle zone on Tuesday.

ANOTHER FIRE. Another fire as Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin declares the Zamboanga City Crisis is almost over. Photo by Karlos Manlupig

ANOTHER FIRE. Another fire as Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin declares the Zamboanga City Crisis is almost over.

Photo by Karlos Manlupig

Where is Malik?

The country's top security officials cannot say where Malik is.

"We are looking for him. We are reviewing if he's among those killed," said Armed Forces chief Gen Emmanuel Bautista.

Gazmin added: "Our mission is to rescue the hostages. We are counting and we know that there holding just a few hostages now."

Commander Idjal said he was still able to speak with Malik on Monday for about 2 minutes. 

Bautista said they found about 20 abandoned MNLF uniforms. Like Commander Idjal, it could mean some of the MNLF fighters are fleeing and pretending to be civilians. 

"We're doing our best to clear all remaning houses and to accunt  all hostages," Bautista said. — Rappler.com