Guns not silenced; civil society pushes for ‘humanitarian ceasefire’

 ZAMBOANGA CITY (MindaNews / 14 Sept) –  No ceasefire.

Day Six of the standoff between the government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) loyal to founding chair Nur Misuari began with a midnight announcement that a ceasefire had been forged followed by an early morning clarification that no ceasefire was in place and an afternoon urgent appeal from civil society to the government and MNLF to “immediately effect a humanitarian ceasefire to allow the release of civilian hostages, especially the children, the elderly, the persons with disabilities, the curing of the sick, and the burying of the dead.”

Day Six also raised the death toll to 51 as of Saturday noon from Friday’s 18: three each from police and civilians; two from the military and 43 from the MNLF although military spokesperson Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala was quick to say the actual body count was 21 and the 22 others were “based on reports from our units.” Still, if actual body count were to be used, the death toll rose from 18 on Friday (two each from the military and civilians, three from the police and 11 from the MNLF) to 29 on Saturday.

There is no report, however, on how many hostages had been killed and neither the police nor the military could confirm when a reporter asked if it was true that 17 hostages had been killed.

At the press conference at City Hall on Thursday noon, the Crisis Management Committee put the number of hostages at 170 and the number of MNLF forces holding them hostage, at 180.

The number of wounded also rose from Friday’s 52 to Saturday noon’s 78: 12 from the police, 38 from the military and 28 from the civilians. On Friday, the figure was six from the police, 18 from the civilians and 28 from the military.

62,000 evacuees

Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said the number of evacuees as of 11 a.m. Saturday had risen to 11,629 families or 62,329 persons, more than twice Friday’s number.

On Friday, the Crisis Management Center recorded 6,024 families with 23,584 dependents in 26 evacuation centers.

The figure includes both the evacuees from Monday and those who were forced to evacuate following the passage of a city ordinance Thursday night, for a forced evacuation in the conflict-affected areas of Sta. Barbara, Sta. Catalina, Rio Hondo, Talon-Talon, Mampang, parts of Tugbungan and other villages affected by the hostage crisis and the firefight between government troops and the MNLF forces.

At least 500 houses were razed to the ground in barangays Sta. Catalina, Sta. Barbara and Mariki, on Friday, according to District Fire Marshall Dominador Zabala: about 150 to 200 houses in Sta. Catalina, 200 to 250 houses in Barangay Mariki,  and 10 to 20 houses in the interior part of Sta. Barbara

Several fire incidents had been reported days earlier but firefighters could not proceed to the area if they are not given clearance by the military, he said.

Cost of standoff

Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco told reporters at the Crisis Management Committee office at the Sanggunian on Saturday morning that they have yet to compute the economic cost of the six-day standoff that began Monday. Business has been at a standstill, flights and shipping schedules to and from Zamboanga had been canceled since Monday and only a few interprovincial buses have been plying the route. Classes, too, have been cancelled.

The social, psychological and political costs are equally immense.  This is the third major hostage-taking incident in the city since the January 1989  hostage-taking and killing of Brig. General Eduardo Batalla and Col. Romeo Abendan by policeman Rizal Alih and the Cabatangan hostage-taking of civilians used as human shields in November 2001 by the MNLF, and in both instances, the perpetrators managed to get away.

The “Cabatangan formula” which gave the rebels a safe conduct pass to leave the area of conflict saved the lives of at least 60 civilian hostages but the Arroyo administration paid a high political cost for all the flak that it got for “escorting” the perpetrators out of the city.

The “Cabatangan formula” has been put forward as a solution to the ongoing crisis but the political cost of invoking that formula is making officials rather wary.

Mayor Climaco said she acknowledges that the formula secured the release of the hostages but  letting the perpetrators get away “without any charges filed” will be a repeat of history.

“The story of Zamboanga is being told and retold,” said a councilor. “In the first (hostage-taking),  the leader of the perpetrators got away. In  the second, they also got away. They will get away again now? We do not want that to happen. Charges should be filed,” the councilor said .

At the press conference at City Hall on Thursday, the number of hostages was estimated at 170, the number of MNLF forces holding them hostage, at 180. 

Cheers and jeers

Zamboanguenos who were still awake at midnight either cheered or jeered the announcement of Vice President Jejomar Binay to Manila-based media outlets that Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and the MNLF’s MIsuari had agreed on a ceasefire effective 12 a.m. Saturday.

Binay told Manila-based media that he would fly to this city later in the day to work out the details and see to the implementation of the agreement.

The Vice President’s announcement sent confusing signals because President Aquino, who arrived here mid-morning of Friday, and Gazmin were still in the city and no mention of a ceasefire was made by either.

Col. Rodrigo Gregorio, spokesperson of the Western Mindanao Command (Wesmincom), the highest military command in the area, told MindaNews he was not aware of a ceasefire declaration. “If there is such a move,” he said in a text message, “then we are not in a position to comment on that. It’s a political issue.”

Soldiers and policemen stationed in the areas near the conflict-affected villages said they were not aware a ceasefire had been declared. From midnight to around 8 am.  “Wala may undang ang buto-buto” (Firing didn’t stop), said PO1 Rubie Zaballero of the Cagayan de Oro-based Regional Public Safety Battalion 10.

Mayor Climaco said there was no ceasefire. “I want this finished today,” she said.

‘Who doesn’t want a ceasefire?’

Gazmin himself said no ceasefire was in place.

MindaNews approached Gazmin while he was waiting for the President to finish his huddle with evacuees at the Joaquin F. Enriquez Jr. Sports Complex. He confirmed that he and the Vice President talked and that the latter said he could reach out to Misuari.

“Nagusap kami ni  Vice President. Sabi niya he can reach out to Misuari. Sabi niya what if magkaroon tayo ng ceasefire? Sabi ko who doesn’t want a ceasefire?  In fact the ceasefire should start from them. meaning, hindi kami magpapaputok kung di rin sila magpapaputok but pag  magpaputok sila, magpapuputok din kami” (The Vice President and I talked. He said he can reach out to Misuari. He said what if we have a ceasefire? I said who doesn’t want a ceasefire? In fact, the ceasefire should start from them, meaning, we will not fire if they will not fire but if they fire, we will also fire.”

He clarified that no ceasefire had been agreed between him and Misuari.  “No no no no no. That is through Binay. Binay is the one trying to arrange that.”

“Doesn’t he know you and the President are here?” MindaNews asked.

Gazmin replied: “Huwag na lang natin (let’s not)… obvious reasons.”

“But people are getting confused,” MindaNews said.

“Kaya nga eh. I had to explain the ceasefire that we are talking about is walang putukan. Pero sila ang mag-umpisa na walang putukan. We are only reacting to them because foremost, our responsibility is the safety of the civilians and the hostages” (That’s why. I had to explain the ceasefire that we are talking about is no firing. But they should start by not firing. We are only reacting to them because foremost, our responsibility is the safety of the civilians and the hostages).

“There is firing all over so what ceasefire are we talking about?” Gazmin said.

Local Governments Secretary Mar Roxas said Binay had lunch with the other Cabinet members at the President’s Quarters here but the issue on ceasefire was not discussed.

Binay told ABS-CBN News Channel that the ceasefire did not push through because the parties could not agree on the terms and conditions for a peaceful settlement.

MindaNews asked MNLF spokesperson Absalom Cerveza on Saturday morning for the mechanics of the supposed ceasefire and he replied,  “simultaneous withdrawal back to camp.”

CSO appeal

Aside from asking both government and the MNLF to declare a “humanitarian ceasefire,” the Interreligious Solidarity for Peace in a statement titled “To silence the guns and save lives” urged the MNLF to “leave all the hostages in one safe place for them to be immediately fetched and their needs attended to.

It asked that that MNLF commander Ustadz Habier Malik’ s group “be allowed safe conduct pass and for such pass to be guaranteed by President Aquino and witnessed by Indonesia.”

Indonesia chairs the Peace Committee for the Southern Philippines of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The MNLF has an observer status in the OIC, the pan-Islamic body that brokered the peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the MNLF that led to the signing of the Tripoli Agreement of 1976 and the Final Peace Agreement in 1996.

Indonesia was supposed to host the September 16-17 meeting of the Tripartite Review Committee that is monitoring the implementation of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement but the MNLF on Thursday asked for the postponement of the meeting to October, in view of the “situation in Zamboanga City.”

The request was granted.  (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)