(Updated 4:08 p.m.)
Some 100 armed followers of former Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) chairman Nur Misuari have attacked Zamboanga City Monday and taken at least 20 people hostage, city mayor Isabelle "Beng" Climaco-Salazar said.
"As of now 20 people are being held hostage. (We believe) the main target of the MNLF in encroaching Zamboanga City is to (declare) independence in City Hall. We are securing City Hall," she said in an interview on dzBB radio.
In a statement
released later in the day, Climaco said six people were killed while 24 others were wounded in the violence.
"Since the start of the crisis at around 4:30 a.m. today, the Zamboanga City Police Office report(ed) that six people were killed — one policemen, one Navy personnel and four civilians and 24 wounded in the course of the encounter between government troops and the rebels," she said. Classes, work suspended
In the dzBB interview, Climaco said the city government has declared "no classes and no work" due to the tense situation.
In an advisory, the Philippine Airlines (PAL) announced the cancellation of all its remaining flights in and out of Zamboanga Monday “to ensure the safety of its passengers amid the ongoing security concerns in the city.”
“The cancelled PAL Express flights are Manila-Zamboanga-Manila scheduled for tonight and flights bound for Jolo, Davao and Cebu,” the country's flag carrier said, adding that passengers may arrange for a rebooking or refund with any PAL or PAL Express ticket office.
Malacañang on Monday assured the public that the government is taking action.
"The authorities are responding to the situation in a manner that will reduce the risk to innocent civilians and restore peace and order to Zamboanga City at the soonest possible time," Malacañang said in a statement.
Citing initial information reaching her, Climaco said the hostage-taking occurred in Barangay Sta. Catalina.
According to Task Force Zamboanga chief Col. Andreilino Colina, the group was trying to force their way into the city, specifically to take over City Hall. "Gusto nila na pumunta ng City Hall at itaas yung bandila nila," Colina said on GMA News TV's "News to Go."
"Tingin lang po namin ay dahil ito ang pinaka-hub in the whole of western Mindanao kaya malaki ang significance ng Zamboanga City sa kanila. Misuari has been saying in the past na kasama dapat itong Zamboanga sa mga area na magiging territory nila," Colina said when asked why the group chose to attack Zamboanga City.
The mayor also said they are establishing evacuation centers for residents of at least three villages whose residents were evacuated earlier Monday.
A dialogue was ongoing with a rival faction of the MNLF in Zamboanga. An MNLF official claimed that the MNLF fighters who engaged the military were intended to be security for Misuari. Colina said he suspects the incursion of Misuari's men was meant to disrupt the dialogue with his rivals.
Misuari had declared independence last August for much of Muslim Mindanao and even Sabah. But this is the first movement by his troops to pursue that claim.
Mayor Climaco added the city government was not advised that the armed men were to escort Misuari in the area.
Also, she asked the national government to hold dialogues with the MNLF outside Zamboanga City.
"We do not want dialogues held in Zamboanga City. The people of Zamboanga City are not part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao," she said.Soldier killed
Earlier Monday, a soldier was killed, while at least six others were wounded, during a clash between the armed forces and suspected MNLF gunmen before dawn in Zamboanga City.
Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, head of the Armed Forces of the Philippines public information office, said the encounter occurred off the coast of Rio Hondo in Zamboanga City.
Citing initial reports, Zagala said the encounter involved suspected MNLF fighters and the Navy's Special Operations Group.
"'Yung malungkot, may isang kasundaluhan na namatay at may mga wounded," he said over dzBB radio.
Meanwhile, Maj. Harold Cabunoc, commander of the Philippine Army's 7th Civil Relations Group, said the firefight occurred at 1:45 a.m.
"Let's offer a minute (of) prayer for the fallen soldier
who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our country," Cabunoc said on his Twitter account.100 armed followers
Initial reports from the military said some "100 more or less" armed followers of Misuari were involved in the encounter.
Habib Hashim, chairman of the Islamic Command Council, confirmed that Misuari's group entered Zamboanga City as of 4 a.m. on Monday.
"Ngayon nandito na sila, nagkaroon na ng exchange of fire in some areas of Zamboanga City. Hindi naman lahat. Nandito sa Sta. Barbara, sa Tugbungan at doon sa Rio Hondo this morning," he told GMA News' Mariz Umali in a telephone interview on GMA News TV.
Hashim explained that they were not part of the group that attacked Zamboanga City, and were in fact taken by surprise.
"Gusto kong sabihin sa inyo na itong sumalakay ay exclusive sa grupo ni brother Nur Misuari, ang chairman ng MNLF, hindi kasama ang grupo namin na sumalakay dito," he said, adding that the attack may have been in connection with the signing of the Bangsamoro framework agreement.
Some members of the MNLF, where the MILF came from, have expressed dismay over the framework agreement. "Talagang nagkakaroon ng hinanakit ang MNLF headed by Nur Misuari," said Hashim, who noted the attack could be part of the plan following Misuari's declaration of independence in Talipao, Sulu on August 12.
"Isa ito sa mga reasons bakit nagpakita ng puwersa ang MNLF at sinalakay ang Zamboanga City," Hashim said.
Asked if they could intervene in the hostage situation, Hashim said it was difficult to contact the group.
"Ginagawan namin ng paraan pero sa ngayon, matindi pa ang labanan, mahirap ma contact. Sa ngayon mga grupo namin in the area pinagpinayuhan namin na huwag lumabas ng bahay at huwag sasali kasi hindi ito kasunduan ng dalawang grupo," he said.
Hashim also called on those in the city to stay in their homes.
"Panawagan ko lang at this point in time, sa mga MNLF maging non-MNLF, kasi matindi ang labanan dito sa some barangays in Zamboanga City, dapat doon lang sila sa bahay nila, huwag silang lumabas para hindi madamay sa ongoing labanan between the government and MNLF forces," he said on News to Go.
Hashim also condemned the hostage-taking. "I would like to appeal to those mga kapatid naming MNLF dito sa Zamboanga City, dapat pakawalan na ninyo yung mga hostages, mga civilian, walang pakialam 'yan. Kawawa naman napadamay," he said.
However, Hashim said Misuari's group is separate from the Islamic Command Council. "He has his own command, he is responsible for the action of his men, mga MNLF under him. We have are own, and at this point in time we are still for the peace process," Hashim said.
He emphasized that the peace talks between the government and the MNLF were not yet over, with the Tripartite Implementation Review of the government-MNLF 1996 peace agreement scheduled this month. "As far as the 1996 peace agreement, sabi ng gobyerno hindi naman scrapped o abrogated. Nandoon pa rin," he said.
An earlier dzBB report said the encounter started at 1 a.m. when the Misuari gunmen approached the city via the coastal village of Mariki.
The fighters exchanged gunfire with Navy personnel and members of Task Force Zamboanga. At least one suspected Misuari fighter was reported wounded in the shootout.
According to Western Mindanao Command spokesman Maj. Franco Alano, at least 60 armed men believed to be MNLF members swooped down at Rio Hondo around 1:30 a.m.
"We are at the outer perimeter at present. It's hard to use the military in an urban center, there might be collateral damages. Our men are used to mountains so we're letting the police handle the situation," Alano said, adding that they have yet to confirm if Misuari is really involved.
Residents in Mariki, Sta. Barbara and Rio Hondo villages were evacuated because of the clashes. Businesses were also closed and classes were suspended in the city, radio dzBB's correspondent JV Francisco reported.
Following the encounter, security was tightened in the city, with military and police personnel establishing security checkpoints.
The city government is to convene its crisis management council Monday morning.
Apprehend armed men
Climaco said she has instructed police and military forces in the city to "apprehend all persons who are armed."
"Lahat ng walang license to carry guns should be apprehended by the police and military," she said.
At 8:40 a.m. Monday, the Zamboanga City government announced on its Twitter account that 11 MNLF members were arrested
in the city.
A separate report by dzBB's JV Francisco said the MNLF members had reached the area near Zamboanga City Hall and the Hall of Justice.
Media were kept away from the area and brought to a nearby hotel, the report added.
But the dzBB report said explosions similar to those from rocket-propelled grenades were heard.
The MNLF had demanded to be allowed to march down Zamboanga City Hall so they can display their flag as a declaration of independence, state-run Philippine Information Agency reported.
In posts on its social networking accounts, the PIA in Western Mindanao said the MNLF men had 30 hostages, including children.
Task Force Zamboanga head Col. Andrelino Colina said in an interview over dzBB radio the MNLF is "trying hard to move forward to the center of the city."
"What complicates matters, may ginagamit na civilian na human shield, ginagamit na hostages," Colina said.
In the meantime, he said the task force has deployed personnel to the city's east coast to watch out for MNLF members who may try to enter the city.
Barangay tanods, bantay dagat alerted; Red Cross ready
The city has also ordered its barangay watchmen and watchmen in coastal areas to be alert against the possible entry of more MNLF members.
Meanwhile, the Philippine Red Cross prepared to assist residents affected by the clashes, radio dzBB's Rodil Vega reported.
The dzBB report also said the Red Cross appealed to the MNLF not to use human shields.
US envoy airs concern over Zambo clash
Outgoing United States Ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas Jr. on Monday aired concern over the deadly predawn clash and subsequent tension in Zamboanga City.
Thomas, in a post on his Twitter account, said his "thoughts and prayers" go to the city's peace-loving people and Mayor Climaco.
He used the hashtag #PrayForZamboanga in his post.
CAAP suspends Zambo airport ops
The Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines on Monday suspended all flights to and from Zamboanga City in the wake of the deadly clash between government troops and MNLF members.
Air carrier Cebu Pacific and state-run People's Television reported the CAAP canceled flights to and from Zamboanga City and suspended Zamboanga Airport's operations.
Cebu Pacific also said it canceled the following flights for Monday:
- 5J840: Tawi-Tawi to Zamboanga
- 5J434: Zamboanga to Cebu
- 5J857/858: Manila-Zamboanga-Manila
- 5J855/856: Manila-Zamboanga-Manila
- 5J393/394: Davao-Zamboanga-Davao
It said affected passengers may "rebook their flights for travel within 30 days from original departure date with no penalties, or opt for full travel fund or full refund."
Passengers may call (02)7020-888 or (032)230-8888 within the day for their preferred option, it added.
Coast Guard on heightened alert
Meanwhile, the Philippine Coast Guard went on heightened alert over the incident, dzBB's Rodil Vega reported.
The Philippine Information Agency also said boat trips from Zamboanga City to Basilan and Jolo were suspended Monday morning, quoting the Philippine Coast Guard in Zamboanga.— with reports from Reuters, Carmela Lapeña and Amita Legaspi/DVM/KG/HS/KBK, GMA News