UPDATE: 200 civilians held hostage in Zamboanga City standoff; 6 killed, 24 wounded

ZAMBOANGA CITY (MindaNews/09 September) – Some 200 civilians have been held hostage in Barangay Catalina in this city in a standoff involving armed members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) loyal to Nur Misuari who arrived in the southern port city on Sunday evening for a “peace rally”, City Mayor Isabelle Climaco-Salazar said.

Climaco-Salazar said the civilians were being held by the group of MNLF commander Hussin Hasimin.

Hasimin said over RMN-Zamboanga that they would march, together with the hostages, to the City Hall to hoist the MNLF flag.

“We are part of the sovereign Republic of the Philippines and as an extension of the national government, we will never allow any flag to be raised except for the Filipino flag,” Salazar countered in a press briefing at City Hall.

In a press briefing this afternoon in Camp Aguinaldo, Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesperson Brig. Gen. Domingo Tutaan said the civilians were merely trapped and “are not hostages in the strict sense of the word.”

Tutaan, however, confirmed reports that the MNLF members earlier took at least 20 civilians as hostages and were using them as human shields.

He said that based on reports from their troops at least four people have been killed and 14 others wounded. He clarified the number of casualties varied.

In another report, Climaco-Salazar said six people have been killed and 24 others injured in firefights that erupted since Sunday evening.

The fatalities included a policeman and a Navy man, she said.

Abdul Sahrin, secretary-general of the MNLF-Sema faction told RMN-Zamboanga that Misuari has acted on his own.

Sahrin said he received information that some 50 followers of Misuari arrived Sunday in Barangay Rio Hondo.

He added a group of 400 rebels were mobilized Sunday by Ustadz Haber Malik in Barangay Candiis, Mohammad Ajul, Basilan.

Malik, who is based in Panamao, Sulu, is said to be loyal to Misuari.

The standoff forced Climaco-Salazar to cancel classes and work in both public and private institutions today turning the city into a virtual ghost town.

Shopping malls also closed and public utility vehicles stopped plying their routes.

Flights to and from the city today were canceled.

Tutaan said around 600 civilians from Sta. Catalina and 800 others from Barangay Sta. Barbara have evacuated.

“The situation is still volatile and evolving as we speak,” he said, although he claimed the firefight had stopped after noontime.

The military official denied lapses on their part saying they were monitoring the situation through the patrols being conducted by the Philippine Navy.

The standoff in Zamboanga came after the MNLF members clashed with government troops on Sunday night, Mayor Isabelle Climaco-Salazar said in an interview with ANC this morning. (See separate story)

Climaco-Salazar told ANC’s Karen Davila the MNLF members were planning to enter the city and declare independence at the city hall.

Tutaan confirmed the mayor’s statement. “Their purpose was to raise the [MNLF] flag. They were armed that’s why we have to stop them.”

Misuari, founding chair of the MNLF, had openly opposed the peace talks between the Philippine Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front saying it has sidelined the tripartite review of the 1996 GPH-MNLF Final Peace Agreement.

Coming on the eve of the resumption of the GPH-MILF talks, observers said the Zamboanga standoff could be Misuari’s way of sending across the message that he and his group should have a role in government’s plans for Mindanao.

Reports said Misuari had declared an independent Mindanao state that he called Bangsamoro Republik on August 12.

The supposed declaration included Palawan, the Zamboanga peninsula, Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and even North Borneo or Sabah, a region controlled by Malaysia but which is historically part of the Sultanate of Sulu.

Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate viewed the standoff as “a slap on the Aquino administration’s peace policy in Mindanao”.

This is an offshoot of a divisive peace policy that excludes other stakeholders in Mindanao, like the forces of MNLF Chair Nur Misuari,” Zarate said.

Starting Tuesday, Sept. 10, the GPH and MILF peace panels will finalize the Annexes on Power Sharing and Normalization to the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro. They earlier agreed on the Annexes on Transitional Arrangements and Modalities and on Revenue Generation and Wealth-Sharing.

Both panels hope to sign the comprehensive peace agreement within the year.

Meanwhile, the US Embassy has expressed condolences to the families of the victims in the standoff.

“Whether they were brave members of the AFP and PNP or civilians facing their future one day at a time, we share your sorrow at the loss of friends and loved ones,” it said in a statement issued this afternoon.

“We fully support the ongoing peace process and hope the parties can continue to avoid violence as they work toward a final resolution that will last for generations and benefit all the people of the Philippines,” it added. (MindaNews)