(UPDATED 5:40 p.m.) A faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) loyal to founding chair Nur Misuari claimed they were on their way to Zamboanga City Hall to hold a peace rally when they were “harassed” by the government security forces.
“(There were) people moving around Zamboanga City…the other party approached and harassed some groups of the MNLF. Unfortunately, there was an encounter and these things already started,” MNLF-Misuari faction Spokesperson Emmanuel Fontanilla told ANC.
He explained that the MNLF asked permission from City Hall to hold the rally but city officials did not grant the request. He also said some members of their group were planting some flags in the area when government security forces tried to stop them. Fontanilla explained that they wanted to hold a peaceful expression of their aspirations for a Bangsamoro state.
Recently, Misuari declared independence for Palawan, the Zamboanga peninsula, Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and even North Borneo or Sabah, which is controlled by Malaysia. The declaration of independence came amid the MNLF’s condemnation of the peace pact between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), another secessionist group in the South.
Fontanilla also said they are hoping a 3rd party like the Indonesian government or the United Nations would come into the picture to diffuse the situation.
He did not confirm the latest reports that the Misuari-MNLF faction was holding around 20 to 30 people hostage, saying this might have been a "voluntary action" on the part of the civilians.
But Abdul Sahirin, secretary general of the MNLF-Sema faction told ANC that they do not support the move by armed men loyal to Misuari.
“No we don’t support this, this move for independence. This is about power. Independence is secondary,” Sahirin said.
He added that their faction supports the current peace process being undertaken by the government. “We continue to ask for peace…we appeal for sobriety. This is not good for our people.”
Around 300 armed men who are said to be members of the MNLF-Misuari faction are currently holding around 20 to 30 civilians hostage in Zamboanga City after skirmishing with government troops in the region, the military said.
ABS-CBN's Jewel Reyes confirmed that 6 people have died while 24 have been injured in the skirmishes.
One member of the Philippine Navy was confirmed dead while 6 others injured when a Navy patrol gun boat intercepted the armed men near Brgy. Rio Hondo at around 11:00 p.m. Sunday evening, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Spokesman Brig. Gen. Domingo Tutaan told ANC.
Reports said the armed men later attacked Brgy. Mariki. An intense firefight was also reported in Brgy. Sta. Barbara.
Philippine National Police (PNP) Region 9 commander Chief Supt. Juanito Vaño said they encountered the armed men and arrested 6 MNLF members early Monday morning.
Some 200 residents are stranded in Brgy. Sta. Catalina. Tutaan said a stand-off is now ensuing and that the armed men are using civilians as human shields.
Zamboanga City Mayor Beng Climaco-Salazar has convened a crisis committee to handle the situation. She said they have been supportive of peace efforts between secessionists and government
“We would like to make it clear, the City of Zamboanga has been very supportive to the national government however we have been appealing to them particularly to OPAAP (Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process) to please secure all these dialogues and negotiations of MNLF and other group out of Zamboanga City because we are not part of the ARMM,” she said. “Their main quest is to declare independence in the city of Zamboanga, a non-ARMM territory.”
Vaño said Sta. Catalina and the other barangays are heavily populated and that Mayor Salazar has ordered the evacuation of around 300 residents there.
He said they could not fully engage the armed men for fear of hitting other civilians. He also said they are securing the area as well as other parts of the city to make sure any intruders would not be joining the armed men as reinforcements. Vaño advised the public to avoid the area for now.
In Manila, Malacañang has condemned the attack. "The ongoing attack of armed individuals in Zamboanga City, including initial reports of the possible use of civilians as human shields, is a cause for great concern. 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," a statement from the Palace said.
It also said President Aquino was receiving regular updates on the situation. "We ask our fellow citizens to refrain from spreading speculation: fear and alarm spread by disinformation will only help those intent on disrupting the lives of residents of Zamboanga City."
Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda also said the violence in Zamboanga City will not affect ongoing peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Sec. Mar Roxas, who is in Zamboanga to assess the situation, told ANC that reports they received revealed Misuari is not in Zamboanga City but in either Sulu or Basilan. He added that he is closely monitoring the situation and trying to prevent other groups from entering the city. He also said a curfew will be in effect in the city to "restrict unauthorized movement."
Classes in all levels in the province have already been suspended by the mayor. Isabela and Basilan have also suspended classes and work in their areas.
The Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) has cancelled Cebu Pacific and Philippine Airlines flights to and from Zamboanga City because of the current situation there.
A report from the Malaysian media organization the Star said security along its sea borders has been on alert for any possible spillover of the violence.
Senators are also calling for an end to the conflict in Zamboanga City.
Senate Defense Commitee chair Sen. Antonio Trillianes has called on the government to restore peace and order in the city. He said the clashes are a result of the exclusion of some groups from the Mindanao peace talks.
Sen. Gregorio Honasan also called on the police and military to protect civilians. Sen. Nancy Binay called on the MNLF to release their hostages.
READ MORE: MNLF rebels hold civilians hostage in Zamboanga City
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