Zambo standoff alarms UN; US issues travel warning

KORONADAL CITY(MindaNews/13 September)–The US government has issued a travel warning on Mindanao in the face of the standoff in Zamboanga City between government troops and members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a situation that also alarmed the United Nations (UN) team in the country.

In an emergency message issued on Thursday, the US embassy in Manila alerted American citizens “that a credible threat against foreigners has been identified in southern Mindanao.”

The standoff in Zamboanga City entered its fifth day Friday, reportedly leaving at least 14 people dead from the government side, MNLF members and civilians.

The standoff came after armed MNLF members allegedly loyal to Nur Misuari, the group’s founding chairman, occupied some coastal villages in Zamboanga.

Clashes between the armed men and government forces erupted early Monday, and on Thursday, fighting also broke out in Lamitan City in Basilan province after alleged MNLF members attacked military personnel in the area.

The US travel alert said that “individuals associated with known extremist groups are believed to have been conducting surveillance on public shopping malls and western-based cafés in the area, as possible targets of interest.”

“Extremists may elect to use conventional or non-conventional weapons, and target both official and private interests,” it added.

The US embassy listed the possible targets as high-profile sporting events, residential areas, business offices, hotels, clubs, restaurants, places of worship, schools, public areas, and other destinations frequented by foreigners.

“The embassy strongly reiterates its recommendation that U.S. citizens exercise extreme caution when travelling to Mindanao and to keep personal safety and security in mind during any stay in Mindanao,” the travel warning said.

It also reminded its citizens to remain vigilant and maintain an appropriate level of personal security in all circumstances “by reviewing your personal safety plans; remaining aware of your surroundings, including local events; and monitoring local news sources for updates.”

Meantime, the UN country office expressed concern about the humanitarian situation affecting civilian population in Zamboanga as a result of the hostilities there.

“The United Nations Country Team calls for an immediate end to the violence, deeply regrets the loss of innocent civilian lives, and calls for safe passage of civilians caught in the cross fire,” Luiza Carvalho, UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator in the Philippines, said in a statement Thursday.

Carvalho said the UN stands ready to support the Philippine government in its efforts to provide humanitarian assistance and to alleviate the humanitarian needs of the civilian population affected by the armed clashes in Zamboanga.

“The United Nations calls on all parties involved to respect and protect the rights of the civilian population, provide special attention to women and children and avoid unnecessary human suffering by reaching [an] agreement to end the standoff,” she said.

The standoff has displaced at least 13,000 individuals while close to 200 “hostages” are being held by the MNLF members, reports said.

Meanwhile, the Zamboanga City government approved Thursday night an ordinance ordering the forced evacuation of residents in villages affected by the ongoing standoff.

The ordinance covered Barangays Rio Hondo, Sta. Barbara, Sta. Catalina, Talon-Talon and Mampang. (Bong S. Sarmiento/MindaNews)