July 20, 2018, 2:05 pm
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Fighting goes to Basilan; No light in settling Zamboanga City standoff

FIGHTING between government forces and members of the Moro National Liberation Front spread to Basilan in the middle of a hostage crisis in Zamboanga City where the group has been holding hostage some 180 residents in four barangays since Monday.
Col. Carlito Galvez, commander of the Army’s 104th Brigade based in Basilan, said the MNLF group encountered by soldiers since Wednesday night in Basilan was aided by the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front which is negotiating a peace accord with government.
In other developments:
Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar, head of the crisis management committee handling the situation in Zamboanga City, said she talked with Nur Misuari Wednesday night, and the MNLF founder “disowned the actions of Habier Malik.” Misuari heads one of three factions in the MNLF. Malik is known to be his loyal follower. Misuari has not made any public statement since the 200-man MNLF group linked to him and Malik attacked Zamboanga City Monday. The two other factions have said they were not in support of the Zamboanga attack and hostage-taking.
Malacañang threatened to unleash government’s full force on the armed groups.
The United Nations called for an end to the conflict in Zamboanga City. Luiza Carvalho, the UN Resident Coordinator in the Philippines, said the UN is concerned over the outbreak of the violence in the city, “in view of the humanitarian situation affecting the civilian population.” She also said UN is ready to help the government in providing humanitarian assistance to civilians affected by the conflict.
The International Committee of the Red Cross appealed to government forces and the insurgents “to ensure civilian life and properties are spared at all times.”
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, archbishop of Manila, offered prayers for the resolution of the standoff in Zamboanga City. Basilan Bishop Martin Jumoad reiterated his appeal for Misuari to order his men “to go back home and to stop sowing fear in the city of Zamboanga because Basilan is also affected.”
The US government earmarked $600,000 (roughly P26.4 million) to help address the immediate needs of some 14,000 displaced residents of Zamboanga City. “The United States has always been there for the Philippines in times of need, and we continue that tradition today for those suffering in Zamboanga,” said US Ambassador Harry K. Thomas, Jr.
The Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines said Zamboanga International Airport will remain closed to all commercial carriers until further notice.
Various military officials had tried to downplay the involvement of the MNLF in the clashes, or its joining forces with the Abu Sayyaf and BIFF.
The clashes in Basilan occurred in Tipo-Tipo town Wednesday night and in Lamitan City yesterday morning.
Capt. Jefferson Somera, spokesman of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division based in Zamboanga del Sur, said the group first attacked around 7 p.m. Wednesday, and targeted a military detachment in Magcawa village in Tipo-tipo town. Artillery assets from the nearby Unkaya Pukan town opened fire at the rebel position, he said.
Somera said the 50-man group was composed of only MNLF and Abu Sayyaf men.
At around 9:30 a.m. yesterday, MNLF rebels accompanied by Abu Sayyaf and BIFF members clashed with Scout Rangers in Colonia village in Lamitan City.
Somera said the skirmish lasted for two hours, leaving three troops injured.
But Somera said the encountered group, numbering 150 men, was composed only of Abu Sayyaf and BIFF men. The group was led by Abu Sayyaf leaders Furiji Indama, Isnilon Hapilon, and Nurhasan Jamiri and BIFF leader Basir Kasaran.
In the attack in Tipo-Tipo town, Lt. Col. Paolo Perez, commander of the 18th Infantry Battalion based in Basilan, said the group involved in the Lamitan clash was the Abu Sayyaf.
“It’s the Abu Sayyaf who attacked,” he said. “They attacked our patrol base in Tipo-tipo proper but we repelled the attack. The attack lasted for about two to three minutes. They retreated when our cannons were fired,” he said.
Two military sources said MNLF fighters were among those encountered in Lamitan City. “A number of them (MNLF men) was with the group we clashed with. They were repelled. It occurred in the outskirts of Lamitan and we prevented them from entering the city proper,” he said.
A second official said the MNLF was indeed involved in the Lamitan clash. “They joined forces with the Abu Sayyaf and the BIFF during the clash,” he said.
Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, chief of the AFP public affairs office, said it was possible that MNLF fighters were among those engaged by the troops in Lamitan City.
“It’s possible that it’s a spillover to ease the tension here (in Zamboanga City), to divert attention there (in Basilan),” said Zagala who flew to Zamboanga City.
“But we will not (be caught flat-footed). We are focused here and there,” said Zagala, stressing that the military can simultaneously manage situations in Zamboanga City and Basilan.
A military source earlier said that hundreds of MNLF fighters were monitored to be massing around Lamitan City Tuesday night, and that the military has re-aligned its forces to address the concern.
AFP spokesman Brig. Gen. Domingo Tutaan said initial information showed the encountered group in Lamitan City is composed of Abu Sayyaf men only.
Apart from Basilan, the military had also monitored massing of MNLF forces in Sulu where Misuari is believed to be staying.
Tutaan said the military is prepared in the event the MNLF spreads the conflict to Basilan and Sulu.
Zagala said the four barangays where the MNLF fighters remained holed up are still under tight military cordon.
“They’re trying to punch out or trying to move (out of the cordon), that’s why we have sporadic fires,” he said.
 
‘INTERESTING’
 
Climaco-Salazar, in a statement, said: “What is interesting is that Nur Misuari disowned the actions of Habier Malik, the leader of the hostage-takers with whom I communicated separately. I expressed my openness to continue communication with Misuari as well Malik to find a peaceful resolution of this conflict.”
She did not give details about her conversation with Misuari or Malik. Efforts to reach her or the spokesman of the crisis management committee were futile. 
Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II said he heard Climaco-Salazar talk to Misuari who he said claimed he does not have control over his men.
He said the the speaker phone was on.
“Sabi niya (Misuari) wala akong kontrol sa situation na iyan at hinahayaan ko ang mga commanders, parang ang mga comanders ang mayroong desisyon kung ano mangyayari sa mga bagay na ito kasama na ang desisyon sa pagpasok dito sa Zamboanga City,” Roxas said.
Zagala said despite Miruari’s claim, the military believes “he is really involved.”
Climaco-Salazar, in the statement, said she has sought the help of “ulamas” and other religious leaders in finding a peaceful solution to the standoff.
She said she was also able to talk to Fr. Michael Ufana, one of he hostages in Barangay Sta. Catalina, and said that the priest is well.
Climaco-Salazar ordered all barangay officials, including barangay watchmen, to be in proper uniform when in the streets to prevent a repeat of an incident wherein a barangay tanod was killed by government troops after he was mistaken to be an MNLF rebel.
She appealed to the business sector to open alternative stores if they decided not to open their shops in commercial areas.
  
WARNING
 
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda warned those who try to take advantage of the conflict, like the BIFF and the Abu Sayyaf, that they will be repelled by the Armed Forces.  
“The BIFF and ASG assumed they could take advantage of the situation. They were wrong. As others who will also make similar attempts will be proven wrong,” he said.
Lacierda did not give any more details about government’s options which he said are being explored, adding that the armed group in Zamboanga can take his statement as it is and let them assess the situation on their own.
He told the people of Zamboanga City that the national government is working to meet their needs despite the armed conflict. He also urged them not to believe rumors about abductions of religious leaders and firefights that are spread through anonymous text messages.
“Instead, listen to the authorities, who will give you the truth all the time,” he said. – With Regina Bengco, Evangeline de Vera, Gerard Naval and Jay Chua
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