Joint forces assault MNLF-held areas

ZAMBOANGA CITY (MindaNews / 13 September) – Joint military and police forces entered the communities of Sta. Barbara and Sta. Catalina,  among the two areas heavily occupied by combatants of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) Friday afternoon, hours after President Aquino said government will talk peace with those who want peace but will use force when necessary.

The initial entry of the joint forces of the Philippine National Police, Task Force Zamboanga and the Philippine Air Force by land since Thursday afternoon was followed by a forced mass evacuation of remaining residents within the six conflict-affected barangays. 

According to the Zamboanga City Information Office, the  City Council unanimously approved Ordinance 418 on Thursday night, upon the recommendation of the Crisis Management Committee which earlier passed Resolution No. 1, implementing a “forced evacuation as a resort when a disaster or emergency has been declared in the city of Zamboanga and danger of loss of lives has become imminent.” 

The forced evacuation was implemented in the coastal barangays of Rio Hondo, Sta. Barbara, Sta. Catalina, Talon-Talon, Mampang, parts of Tugbungan and other villages affected by the hostage crisis and the firefight between government troops and the MNLF forces.

Mid-morning of Friday, when President Aquino arrived here to assess the situation,  MindaNews saw naval speed boats with personnel of the Joint Special Operations Group with the Philippine Navy Seals on board speeding from the direction of Ensign Majini Port towards the two major areas by sea.  

Earlier Friday morning, the MNLF in Barangay Sta. Catalina freed Archdiocesan priest, Fr. Michael Ufana. MindaNews sources in the Crisis Committee said Ufana, assistant parish of St. Joseph Parish, was set free to facilitate supposed negotiations and to relay the stand and demands of the MNLF.

Ufana, accompanied by three MNLF escorts , conferred with officials in the morning but was set to return to Sta. Catalina to fulfill his palabra de honor (word of honor; a value system strong in Zamboangueño culture) to his captors and the other hostages, including his own father. No details of said discussions were released to the media.

An estimated 170 residents have been held hostage since Monday, September 9, when some 200 members of the MNLF laid siege initially on four, then later six, villages, according to the government.  The MNLF on the other hand claimed they were in the city to stage a peace rally and to hoist their flag at City Hall, in pursuit of  MNLF founding chair Nur Misuari’s alleged declaration of independence on August 12.

Several hostages were reportedly rescued by the soldiers early Firday afternoon but some were wounded, including Raymundo Cepada.

As of 6 p.m. it is not certain if the President had met with Fr. Ufana. (Frencie L. Carreon / MindaNews)