ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines — Six days ago, the military announced that government troops were dealing with just 40 Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fighters in the combat zone — a far cry from the estimated 400 gunmen who attacked the city on September 9.
But this crisis that President Benigno Aquino III and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin declared as "almost over" continues to drag and the numbers now don't add up.
A total of 45 MNLF fighters were turned over to the police early Thursday morning, September 26. Armed Forces public affairs chief Lt Col Ramon Zagala said in an afternoon press briefing that another batch was captured but he couldn't immediately give details.
The previous day, another batch of 38 fighters was captured. This is the batch that includes the nephew of MNLF founder Nur Misuari and a female commander.
The siege is now on its 18th day and the recent arrests of big batches of MNLF fighters indicate government's confusion over the number of fighters still holed out in the battle zone.
Latest military numbers show a total of 128 MNLF members were captured, 146 surrendered, and 126 were killed. That's already a total of 400 MNLF fighters.
The police numbers are different: 185 captured, 24 surrendered, and 107 killed. That's a total of 316.
The military concedes the landscape is more complex than it appears.
"It's an urban setting. We are going house to house, room to room. There are lots of alleys, there are lots of walls, there are a lot of debris. There's difficulty in moving forward," Zagala said.
"People may say that the size [of operations] is small. But it's not the size. It's the number of structures. It's thethe number of debris. Now is a crucial time for the AFP. Just in a matter of 24 hours, we have so many wounded and so many killed in action," he added.
Three Marines were killed and 6 others were wounded.
Yet on Day 16 of the siege, no less than Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the area of constriction is now small — 100 meters by 100 meters involving 5 structures.
Residents are getting impatient even as the city is slowly seeing signs of normalcy. The crisis is not over. Commander Habier Malik, who led hundreds of MNLF fighters in the standoff with government troops, is still inside in the combat zone, according to the military.
"Zamboanga City remains in pain as we are on the 18th day of the crisis," said Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco. "We are at a crucial phase of this crisis as our government forces continue with the clearing operations in the affected barangays. The civilian government also tries it very best to keep the city running," she added.
The airport and the seaport have resumed operations. Schools have re-opened although turnout is low. At least one mall has opened.
But heavy firing was heard at the break of dawn Thursday and choppers continued to fly over the combat zone later in the morning. Six hostages were rescued along with the capture of the MNLF fighters.
Zagala said they are re-assessing their estimates.
"Right now there are asessments ongoing. Based on this assessment, we'll be able to determine how many MNLF fighters are still there and how many hostages are left. The very key of our mission is rescue," Zagala said.
There's more information coming from the rescued hostages and captured rebels, he said. "We have to validate these information in order for us to get a clearer picture. How many are stil linside? Who are we facing? So we can adjust our forces if necessary," he said.
File photo from the Philippine Air Force