Standoff could have ended on Day 5, Sept. 13 if…

DAVAO  CITY  (MindaNews / 25 September)  —  The standoff  in Zamboanga City between government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) under founding chair Nur Misuari could have ended on Day 5, Friday, September 13 if government had responded to the demands of MNLF commander Habier Malik for a ceasefire to facilitate the release of the hostages, a safe conduct pass for his group to leave Zamboanga City and an ambulance for the wounded.

Government, however, was not keen on giving the rebels a safe conduct pass as it did 12 years earlier when MNLF forces held ground at the satellite office of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in Cabatangan, also in Zamboanga City and took residents as human shields as they were escaping

The “Cabatangan formula” or “Cabatangan template” was an unpopular move, and cost the Arroyo administration such a high political price for “escorting” the MNLF out of Zamboanga City “but it saved lives,” said Jesus Dureza, who was Presidential Assistant for Mindanao during the Cabatangan crisis.

The crisis ended overnight, saved the lives of 60 hostages and saved Zamboanga City from becoming a battleground.

Malik’s demands were coursed through Fr. Michael Ufana, assistant parish priest of the St. Joseph Parish who was home in Lustre, Sta. Catalina on Monday, September 9, when the MNLF occupied their village and neighboring barangays, and held an estimated 170 residents as human shields.

Lustre is less than a kilometer away from City Hall.

In his signed statement taken by the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group at 7:30 a.m. on September 13, a copy of which MindaNews obtained, Ufana said he suggested to Malik, and Malik agreed, that he would mediate, to bring the group’s demands to government so the standoff could end and the hostages freed.

Ufana left Lustre early morning of Friday, September 13 with a message to convey to the government that the MNLF wanted to “discuss with them over the table about the 1996 Tripoli Agreement that the government set aside.”

But Malik’s  immediate demands were “to have a ceasefire for the facilitation of the release of the hostages, safe passage from leaving Zamboanga City back to their place and provide ambulance to assist the remaining hostages who will be released. “

The priest was reported to have promised to return to Lustre, where his father Isidoro and some relatives were among the hostages.

MindaNews went to the St. Joseph Parish in Zamboanga City morning of September 18 but security personnel at the gate said the priest was not around and that they did not know where he was. Government security forces could be seen inside the compound.

In his signed statement, Ufana’s response to a query on what options Malik’s group would take if the demands were not met was that “they will march to the City Hall of Zamboanga City together with their hostages even if it will (cost) them their (lives) just to show to the public that they died fighting for their cause and eventually their comrades will conduct an all out attack in the entire area of Mindanao.”

Malik had earlier claimed they went to Zamboanga to stage a peace rally and raise the MNLF flag at City Hall in pursuit of Misuari’s alleged declaration of independence of the “Bangsamoro Republik.”

According to his signed statement, Ufana, using the phone of Malik, spoke with Misuari at 6 a.m. of Thursday, Sept. 11, Day 4 of the standoff.

Grievances vs gov’t

Asked what the conversation was about, Ufana said: “It is all about his sentiments to Governor Sakur Tan and Governor Hataman of ARMM. He was very angry with Governor Sakur Tan because he control(led) their group using CAFGU and military by preventing them to march in the street expressing their sentiment or grievances against the government. He was also very angry (at) Governor Hataman because funding of supposed MNLF projects was kept for his own personal use and never assists them to communicate (with) Malacanang.”

Misuari was apparently referring to their supposed rally in Jolo, Sulu on August 20. It did not push through because the local government did not issue them a permit to rally.

Tan, now vice governor of Sulu, told MindaNews, “OK lang magalit siya kaysa magalit at mabulabog town namin” (it’s ok if he’s angry for as long as our people are not angry and our town is not troubled).

ARMM Governor Mujiv Hataman denied Misuari’s allegations. “I am not like him (Misuari),” Hataman told MindaNews. He also said he has not received request from  Misuari’s group to communicate with Malacanang.

Ufana said Misuari told him that “he was very angry in the strongest way, that the government ignored the (Final Peace) Agreement between the MNLF and the Philippine Government, that he believes the government has forgotten them.”

Throughout the standoff that entered its 17th day on September 25, the usually media-savvy Misuari was uncharacteristically silent, choosing instead to speak to the public through two non-Moro spokespersons based in General Santos and Banga, South Cotabato,  Emmanuel Fontanilla and Rev. Absalom Cerveza, both of whom claimed to be the “official” spokesperson.

Waiting for response

But while Misuari shied away from the media, he spoke with friends in government. As early as Day One of the standoff on September 9,  Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte

had phoned Misuari to appeal for sobriety and reminded his friend that it is better to talk than fight. Misuari told Duterte of his impending talks with the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG).

It wasn’t only Duterte that Misuari talked to. Ufana said Misuari told him during that Thursday morning conversation that he was in Sulu and that he “intended to go to Manila to meet/talk with the Vice President Binay” but could not do so “because of the presence of the military in the area.”

Ufana, who was brought to the Philippine National Police’s Camp Batalla early Friday morning of Sept. 13 where his statement was taken,  waited for a meeting with government officials to relay the rebels’ demands. Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco, head of the Crisis Management Committee (CMC) met with the priest briefly.

President Benigno Simeon Aquino III arrived in Zamboanga City mid-morning.


News that the President was on his way to Zamboanga broke out shortly after the news on Ufana’s release,  prompting speculations the President would meet with the priest.

After all, it would be the first time in the then five-day standoff that a hostage who had spoken with Malik face to face and with Misuari by phone could narrate what was happening in Lustre.

The President stayed in Zamboanga City until Sunday, September 22. He never met with Ufana or send for him.

But MindaNews sources said a senior official phoned Ufana morning of Sept. 13 and when told about Malik’s demands asked for his number and phoned him. No details of the conversation were divulged but both reportedly agreed on a two-hour ceasefire, from 10 a.m. to 12 noon.

Ufana never made it back to Lustre. Before noon of Friday, the holiest of days among Muslims, before the supposed ceasefire lapsed, the staccato of gunfire and mortars exploding echoed in the downtown area. Fires raged across the conflict zone, columns of smoke billowing from a distance. Ufana broke down.

What happened?

What happened in Lustre during the supposed two-hour ceasefire is described in the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on September 19 quoting the 27-year old Michelle Candido, one of the freed hostages.

On September 13, Candido, according to the HRW, heard the rebels talking about a two-hour ceasefire that was to last between10 a.m. and noon.  The rebels told the hostages that they would soon be released. “They wanted us to escort them and then they will leave us,” HRW quoted Candido as saying.

“At around 10:30 a.m. the hostages were ordered out into the street with rebels armed with rifles taking cover behind them, using them as human shields.  Candido said that as soon as they were out, gunfire erupted between the military and the rebels.  ‘The shots came from afar,’ she said. ‘It’s as if they didn’t care about the hostages.’ One of the hostages was struck by gunfire and killed,” the HRW report said.

The report added that the hostages and the rebels tried to seek cover during the shooting that lasted for several hours, until 4 p.m., stopping intermittently.

The  HRW report quoted Candido as saying a helicopter dropped “confetti in which the pieces were in the shape of doves” and that they were happy because “a dove means peace.” she said.

“It would soon be over,” Candido thought.

“Three military vehicles, which Candido described as tanks but likely armored personnel carriers that were widely used in this conflict, then arrived: We got up and shouted ‘Ceasefire!’ But the tanks started shooting at us. One old man was hit and died. One man in a yellow shirt died, too. The firing went on and on until we had no choice but jump into the sewer, whose cover had been removed by the rebels so they can turn it into a shield.” Candido’s son was hit, they were freed the next day but her son passed away 24 hours later.

The HRW report also quoted a 17-year old who was so terrified when the shooting started. “It was like a massacre…. The shooting just went on and on. We dropped to the ground, some jumped into the sewer.”

Another ceasefire attempt

Shortly before midnight, Manila-based media quoted Vice President Binay,  Misuari’s college classmate, as saying a ceasefire, effective midnight, had been forged between Defense Minister Voltaire Gazmin and Misuari.

The report drew cheers and jeers from Zamboanguenos as calls for all-out offensive drowned out civil society’s cries for a humanitarian ceasefire.

Binay’s announcement, however, was cheered by peace advocates and the hostages’ relatives, only to find out early morning that a ceasefire was not in place. Gazmin also denied that a ceasefire  had been forged.

Grace Rebollos, former president of the Western Mindanao State University,  a member of the Inter-religious Solidarity for Peace and Regional Convenor for the Western Mindanao Cluster of Bantay Bayanihan,  was among those who cheered the ceasefire announcement.

When it was denied, she and other civil society leaders continued to push their call for a humanitarian ceasefire, presenting their seven-point statement to President Aquino through Social Welfare Secretary Corazon “Dinky” Soliman, at 2 p.m. on Saturday, September 14.

By then the military option was already in full swing.

“Who will be held accountable for all this mess and suffering?” asked retired professor Ali Yacub, president of the Golden Crescent Consortium of Peace Builders and Affiliates.

2016 elections

Rebollos head earlier complained to MindaNews that the standoff in Zamboanga City was turning into a political battleground for 2016.

Without mentioning their names, it was clear Rebollos was referring to Binay and Local Governments Secretary Mar Roxas. Both are eyeing the Presidency in 2016.  But both do not see eye to eye on how to end the standoff.
Binay’s formula is the “Cabatangan formula” or “Cabatangan template” which was done in November 2001 when Misuari’s forces were given a safe conduct pass to save the lives of at least 60 civilians whom they held as human shields.  Roxas took the hardline stance.

In the press conference at noon on Day 4, Sept. 12, the military spokesperson said they estimated 170 hostages were still held by some 180 MNLF guerrillas.

That evening, Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco, CMC chair, told MindaNews that if that formula of giving safe passage to the MNLF  “was the best way, why not?”

But she said she would also consult security advisers. Gazmin was still in the city, as well as Local Governments Secretary Mar Roxas, and the top brass of the military and police. The mayor, a niece of the legendary Mayor Cesar Climaco who was gunned down in November 1984, is married to retired Maj. Gen. Triunfo Salazar, now chief of the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA).

Climaco, Nur, Malik

Climaco had actually spoken to Malik and Misuari evening of Day 3, a Wednesday.

In a press conference Thursday noon, Climaco said she was able to talk to Misuari “hoping it would pave the way for the peaceful end of this crisis.”

“What is (of) interest is that, 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 (as) Malik to find peaceful resolution of this conflict,” she said.

Misuari’s alleged “disowning” of Malik’s actions were denied by Cerveza.  “That’s not true. The chairman will never disown Malik’s actions,” he told MindaNews.  He said Climaco may have misinterpreted Misuari’s statement.

MindaNews sought Climaco’s clarification evening of September 12 on how Misuari “disowned” Malik. As Cerveza pointed out, there may have been a misinterpretation.

Climaco said she phoned Malik who in turn referred her to Misuari and gave her his number.

When she phoned Misuari, “Nur said he had given his leaders a free hand,” Climaco said.

She said she appealed to him to release the hostages. “He said, titingnan nya” (he’ll see).

Climaco said she phoned Malik again and appealed for the release of the hostages. “Malik said ‘ask the Philippine government to implement immediately the 1996 final accord.’”

“Beyond my level”

Climaco said she told Malik, “hindi ito sa level ko” (this is beyond my level).

“Hindi ko ito problema (This [implementation of peace pact] is not my problem).  My priority is safety of all the people of Zamboanga City,” Climaco said, adding that if there was a miscommunication between Misuari and Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Quintos-Deles, they should resolve it themselves.

Evening of Day 4, Sept. 12, the CMC passed two resolutions: CMC Resolution I which recommended the “implementation/enforcement of the forced and preemptive evacuation of the residents of barangays Rio Hondo, Sta. Barbara, Sta. Catalina, Talon-talon, Mampang and other affected barangays in the present hostage crisis and armed conflict.”

The recommendation for a forced evacuation hinted a military option was in the offing and was bolstered by the fact that the committee in CMC Resolution 2 had passed the decision on to President Aquino when it said it was “abiding by the decision” of the President “on what action  (is) to be taken regarding the resolution of this crisis.”

Resolution 2 said negotiations had been conducted by the CMC for the safe release of the hostages and to end the armed conflict but “after a series of negotiations with the breakaway MNLF group of Nur Misuari, the peaceful means to end the hostage crisis and armed conflict failed.”

Doors closed, windows opened

The doors to a peaceful resolution of the conflict were closed on Thursday evening, Sept. 12 by CMC Resolution 2.

By Friday morning, Sept. 13, however, a window for peaceful resolution was opened through Ufana’s release and nearly midnight, another window opened through the Binay-brokered ceasefire.

On Saturday afternoon, Sept. 14, Rebollos said Secretary Soliman told the civil society group that met with her on their appeal for a “humanitarian ceasefire” that the general sentiment expressed during a supposed multisectoral forum with the President on Friday night, supported the military option. Most of those in the meeting with Soliman were not invited to the forum with the President.

On the night  of Sept. 12, when the CMC decided on forced evacuation and abiding by the President’s decision on resolving the crisis, the number of evacuees was just around 10,000 to 16,000. By Sept. 13, the number of evacuees would rise to 23,000; by Saturday, September 14 at 62,000 and 110,000 by Sept. 22.

The death toll and the wounded also rose by the day, even as the military announced that based on the strategy to “contain, constrict, calibrated response and clear,”  the operational area of the MNLF forces has been “limited.”

“MNLF world getting smaller”

“Maliit na maliit na ang mundo nila” (their world is getting smaller),  Army spokesperson Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said at the press conference on Day 10, September 17.

But as the MNLF’s “world” got smaller every day, the number of evacuees ballooned from 23,000 on September 13 to 62,000 on September 14;  to 67,000 on September 15 and 81,000 by September 16; and 109,000 by September 19,  95,000 of them in evacuation centers, to 110,000 on September 22.

“The increase of evacuees is a clear sign of insecurity and fear.. It is not yet over. The impact and damage of this show of force in Zamboanga has been so big and heavy that it has reopened the wounds of mistrust and fear. We need a deeper, comprehensive healing,” Fr. Angel Calvo of the Peace Advocates Zamboanga said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)