Zambo crisis could be over today — Aquino

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines — President Benigno Aquino III left Zamboanga City on Sunday, September 22, confident that the crisis could be over soon. 

"Patapos na malamang itong araw na ito lahat ng pangyayari dito," he said in a press briefing before he boarded a jet bound for Manila around 3:30 p.m. (The events here could be over today.)

He said there are pressing matters in the capital that he also needs to attend to.

The President added: "Siyempre pagkatapos ng tinatawag na clearing at mopping up, gusto ko tingnan lahat ng pinanggalingan nila. Bago payagan ang mamamayan makabalik sa kanilang tahanan, kailangan masiguradong ligtas kung makakabalik sa kanilang tahanan."

(There are clearing and mopping up operations. We'll make sure it's safe before we allow families to return to their homes.)

Government troops continue to engage the remaining Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fighters in Zamboanga City on Day 14 of the crisis. Aquino is confident the standoff could be over soon. 

The President did not elaborate on the operations, but he said MNLF commander Habier Malik is among those inside the battle zone. 

Aquino said the presence of hostages is the primary reason why the standoff dragged on. "It is the primary reason, to an extent the total reason."

The President said the military was not allowed to use "heavier stuff" to guarantee the safety of hostages. 

"We have purposely withheld using the heavier stuff and to make it as surgical as possible to ensure the safety of our citizens," he said.

Not over until area is cleared

Security officials are conservative in their projection. 

Armed Forces chief Gen Emmanuel Bautista said military operations will continue until the area is cleared. "It's not over until it is cleared," he said. 

It's now a close quarter battle, meaning soldiers are just about 50 meters away from the rebels' camp. There are about 40 MNLF fighters and about 20 hostages. 

Armed Forces public affairs chief Lt Col Ramon Zagala said Malik is still there. 

"Data show he is still there. We are working doubly hard to finish this operation at the soonest possible time," Zagala said.

"We're still currently operating. We're doing it meticulously because of the hostages," he added.

"As we tighten the noose, it gets harder. The area of constriction is smaller and the firefight's a lot fiercer," he said. One soldier was killed Saturday night. 

Zagala said they believe MNLF fighters have little ammunition left. —