Gov’t claims ‘70% control’ of conflict areas

Posted on September 17, 2013

ZAMBOANGA CITY -- The government now controls 70% of the city’s conflict areas, Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel “Mar” A. Roxas II said on Monday night.

The report was made after heavy fighting erupted between government forces and members of the Moro National Liberation Front’s (MNLF) Misuari faction early during the day.

Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar, meanwhile, reiterated what is happening here is not a religious conflict.

On Monday morning, government soldiers launched an assault on MNLF fighters’ positions especially in barangay Sta. Catalina, an area earlier declared by military officials as already under control of the government.

Gunfire accompanied by occasional bursts of mortars can be heard miles away from the conflict area. Two NG-520 attack helicopters of the Philippine Air Force are helping in an aerial assault.

“This is a precision close air support directed by ground troops to suppress the enemy,” military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala told AFP.

A huge fire also broke out in the village of Sta. Catalina amid the fire fight. As of Monday over 60 deaths related to the conflict, roughly 50 of these from the rebel side, have been reported.

Meanwhile, in response to talks about the crisis in Zamboanga being an issue between religions, Ms. Salazar claimed otherwise in a statement issued here.

“Let us not speculate and push further this divide as this will not help in solving the current situation of this city. This is an issue of those misguided people whose ideologies had been founded with the use of arms, ultimately to inflict terror to our people,” she said.

Ms. Salazar stressed that help is given to all who are in need and no discrimination is being done. She expressed sympathy for all the victims and the men who are putting their lives on the line to keep the city safe.

“I hold you responsible and accountable for the lives of the dead, the houses burned and the hostages still suffering. May you be met with the full force of the law,” she said.

Sheikh Loderson Mahir Gustaham, executive chairman of the Federation of Muslim Students Association, also commented on the alleged Muslim-Christian conflict.

“Zamboanga city is full of Christians and Muslims, but I think this is conflict with the Nur Misuari faction and the other group from the military or from the government. As my words, it’s very clear that we need to soften the heart of both sides and they must sit together for the peaceful solution.”

Mr. Gustaham disowned a statement under his name that was being spread online by a group called Bangsamoro Uprising.

“Don’t use me to aggravate the problem because what we want is peace. Islam is a peace religion.”

The crisis has reached its eighth day yesterday. A statement from the city government said the conflict has displaced approximately 16,000 families, or over 81,000 individuals.

Heavily armed MNLF forces entered the port city’s coastal neighborhoods on Monday last week in a bid to sabotage talks between a rival rebel group and the government that are aimed at ending decades of conflict.

Muslim rebels have been fighting since the 1970s for an independent or autonomous homeland in the South. The MNLF signed a peace treaty in 1996 that granted limited self-rule to the south’s Muslim minority, and has since largely participated in the country’s political process rather than foment violence. But 71-year-old MNLF founder Nur Misauri has been angered by a planned peace deal between the government and the rival Moro Islamic Liberation Front, as he believes it would sideline his organization. -- Albert F. Arcilla, Jemm A. de Leon and AFP