MANILA, Philippines (7th UPDATE) — Up to 400 suspected members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) have taken over 4 barangays in Zamboanga City early Monday morning, September 9, Mayor Maria Isabelle "Beng" Climaco told Rappler.
As of 11 am Monday, at least 6 were reported killed (one policeman, one navy personnel and four civilians) while 24 were wounded, including 3 cops, 7 soldiers and 4 civilians, according to Climaco's statement issued 2 p.m. Monday.
"More or less" 20 hostages were still being held by the armed men while 200 civilians are stranded in Barangay Catalina, where the hostages where taken, Police Senior Supt Wilben Mayor told a press conference Monday afternoon in Camp Crame.
The 4 barangays affected are: Sta Barbara, Sta Catalina, Rio Hondo, Mariki, and areas in Talontalon. Climaco said they are verifying if the MNLF had taken over another barangay.
"We are certain it's the MNLF," said Armed Forces public information chief Lt Col Ramon Zagala.
Watch a photo essay showing the situation in Zamboanga City below.
The Zamboanga attacks came on the day that both the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front are scheduled to resume the final leg of their peace talks.
Climaco said the group wants to march to the City Hall to raise their flag there and declare independence from the government.
"We're trying to contain them in Talontalon," Zagala said. "Our ultimate goal is the safety of the civilians," he added.
The MNLF group is led by Haber Malik, a lieutenant of MNLF founder Nur Misuari. Malik is based in Sulu.
For months now, Misuari has been making noise about the supposed failure of the peace agreement that he signed with former President Fidel Ramos in 1996. His faction wants the Aquino government to enter into another round of talks with them, a demand that is seen as an attempt to dilute the peace process between the Aquino government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Since the 1996 peace agreement, the MNLF has splintered into at least 3 factions: one is led by Misuari, the other by former Cotabato Mayor Muslimin Sema, and the third led by former members of the executive committee of the MNLF who left Misuari during the negotiations with the Ramos government and formed the Islamic Command Council.
From the sea
One group sneaked into the city dawn Monday from the sea, and launched the attacks sunrise at the seashore of Barangay Mariki, police intelligence reports obtained by Rappler said.
A second group entered Barangay Catalina, using a mosque in the harbor area, the same reports said.
"There's heavy firing," the reports sent at 8 am said.
As of 8:30 am, the MNLF group was near the Zamboanga City Medical Center, on their way to the City Hall where they plan to raise the MNLF flag.
File photo by Karlos Manlupig/Rappler
Loud shots could be heard around the city, a former colonial Spanish port with a population of nearly a million and one of the busiest commercial hubs in Western Mindanao.
Streets were deserted and shops were shuttered. Heavily armed private security personnel as well as troops were guarding the airport, hotels, banks and other institutions.
There were blockades in the coastal areas to prevent more MNLF troops from entering the city. Climaco convened the Crisis Management Committee early Monday morning to address the situation.
The Naval Special Operations Group (NAVSOG) had an encounter with the MNLF troops 1 a.m. Monday at sea off Barangay Mariki, where one soldier was reportedly killed.
The PNP also detained Sunday night, September 8, at least 6 suspected MNLF members in barangay Rio Hondo for illegal possession of firearms.
Climaco said the MNLF troops also want to proceed to Basilan. Mayor Cherilyn Santos Akbar also cancelled work and classes there, according to the Philippine Information Agency.
Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma told dzXL radio that the government's priority is to ensure the safety of civilians.— with reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com