79 people leave Zambo City battle zone

HOSTAGES. Soldiers assist rescued hostages to a waiting vehicle taking them to Camp Batalla for processing. Photo by Rappler

HOSTAGES. Soldiers assist rescued hostages to a waiting vehicle taking them to Camp Batalla for processing.

Photo by Rappler

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines (6th UPDATE) — At least 79 people trapped in the battle zone here were turned over by the military to the police on Tuesday morning, September 17, following a night of heavy fighting between government troops and the remaining forces of Habier Malik.

A total of 64 people were turned over to the police at 4:30 am. A second batch of 5 people was also able to leave the battle zone later, while a third batch of 10 did the same. This brings the total number of people brought to safety on Tuesday at 79. Some of them are children.

They are currently in Camp Batalla, regional headquarters of the Philippine National Police, according Maj Bernard Clavecillas of the Joint Special Operations Group.

City Councilor BG Guingona said the first 64 people who were either rescued or released are "unverified hostages."

"We have to assume that they are not hostages. We verify. Baka evacuees or, worse, rebels," he told Rappler. They were picked up at the Southern College along Pilar Street. It is near Sta Catalina, the site of heavy fighting since the standoff started September 9.

Two batches of a total of 36 hostages were either released or rescued Monday night, September 16. These batches have been verified as hostages, Guingona said.  

Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas said the former hostages will be reunited with their relatives after 3 hours, after undergoing tactical debriefing.

"Ito ay pagsiguro na ang nalalaman nila ay nakukuha ng gobyerno," Roxas said. (We are making sure that whatever information they have, the government gets.)

After the PNP debriefing, the former hostages, if cleared, will be turned over to the Department of Social Welfare and Development to cater to their psychosocial needs, Roxas said.

"By 12 noon (Tuesday) makikita na ninyo ang inyong mga kamag-anak," he added. (You will see your relatives by 12 noon.)

PROCESSING. Relatives of hostages register their names outside Camp Batalla, September 17, 2013. Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

PROCESSING. Relatives of hostages register their names outside Camp Batalla, September 17, 2013.

Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

Roxas said part of the debriefing is to ensure that no MNLF rebels have mixed with the group and are pretending to be civilians.

He shared many of the ex-hostages are dazed, but are now being fed.

Total: 115

From Monday night to Tuesday at 8 am, the total number of people brought to safety and are now in government custody stood at 115.

Prior to this, at least 33 hostages were also either released or rescued from rebel positions. 

The Zamboanga siege entered its 9th day on Tuesday. Heavy mortar fighting occurred Monday night as government troops closed in on Rio Hondo, where Malik, the Moro National Liberation Front leader who led the attack, and his followers are believed to be holed out.

At least 87 people have been killed and 146 have been wounded in the weeklong siege, according to a latest military update.

FREEDOM. Social workers assist former hostages to a vehicle that will take them to Camp Batalla for processing, September 17, 2013. Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

FREEDOM. Social workers assist former hostages to a vehicle that will take them to Camp Batalla for processing, September 17, 2013.

Photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

Clavecillas said there are still 5 MNLF groups hiding in the villages of Sta Catalina, Sta Barbara and Rio Hondo. The military believes Malik is still alive but troops could not pinpoint his exact location.

In a statement on Monday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said  civilians remained trapped in the 5 villages occupied by gunmen and soldiers because they either could not leave the area for fear of getting caught in the crossfire or are being stopped from leaving by soldiers and policemen.

"Others could not leave because they did not have the money to pay operators of outrigger boats, which became the only safe way to escape the coastal villages caught up in the fighting," HRW said.

In an ice plant building in Rio Hondo, at least 300 people are believed trapped there, according to HRW. It's not clear now whether some of the residents or alleged hostages now in government custody had come from this building.

According to HRW, residents who managed to escape said they feared that "civilians left behind would be accused of being rebels and could be subject to government attack or mistreatment in custody."

"Aside from demanding documentation, it is unclear how the authorities are distinguishing civilians from rebel fighters as required by international law. Police sources told Human Rights Watch that more than half of the individuals arrested since September 9 have subsequently been released," HRW added. — Rappler.com