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DAY 10 | Malik 'constricted' as military says no 'final push' yet vs MNLF in Zamboanga

Army armored personnel carriers in Zamboanga City. FILE PHOTO BY ERWIN MASCARINAS

InterAksyon.com
The online news portal of TV5

MANILA, Philippines -- (UPDATE 3 - 3:39 p.m.) Habier Malik, who commands Moro National Liberation Front involved in the deadly standoff in Zamboanga City, is trapped with his men within a “constriction area” created in the course of government’s counteroffensive against the rebels, a military spokesman said Wednesday.

On the tenth day of the standoff, Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala, Armed Forces public affairs chief, dispelled reports that Malik, one of MNLF founder Nur Misuari’s most trusted lieutenants, had escaped to Sulu.

“He is still in there. He is still inside the 30 percent constriction area,” Zagala said, referring to the remaining area where the rebels remain holed out.

Zagala’s disclosure also gave a higher percentage to the area still held by the MNLF than the 20 percent estimate given earlier in the day by the Philippine National Police.

At the height of the standoff, Malik’s fighters gained control of at least five barangays, holding scores of residents as “human shields” to keep government forces at bay.

By Wednesday, AFP spokesman Brigadier General Domingo Tutaan Jr. said, “We believe that there are still about more or less 70 to 75 members of the armed group (left).”

‘Clearing’ or ‘constriction’?

There also appeared to be some disagreement between the military and police about the stage in which government operations against Malik and his holdouts are in.

PNP Deputy Director for Operations Felipe Rojas Jr. said they had begun “clearing operations” with their efforts focused on finding booby traps the rebels may have left in areas they abandoned.

Isa hanggang dalawa na lang na barangay ang meron pang MNLF (The MNLF is still present in only one to two barangays),” Rojas said in a radio interview.

However, Zagala was more cautious, describing their operations as a “gradual constriction,” with clearing operations limited only to areas that have been 70 percent recovered.

At the height of the standoff, Malik’s force had gained control of at least five villages.

Like Rojas, he refused to give specifics on where Malik and his followers were, saying the military continued to carry out “calibrated attacks” against the rebels, who are still holding on to a number of hostages.

Madami na tayong na-occupy (We have occupied many areas) but we still consider that area of interest (where Malik is) as important to us, kaya ‘yan ang focus natin (which is why our focus is there),” Zagala said. “This is a gradual constriction and then we’re here to save lives. We are currently pushing forward and eventually ‘pag ma-neutralize natin itong (once we neutralize these) MNLF we shift to clearing operations. In areas within 70 percent (recovery), we are already starting our clearing operations.”

Neither would Zagala state a deadline for ending the standoff, only saying they would resolve the crisis “the soonest possible.”

But in a hint that it might take some more time before the battered city could return to normal, Zagala had this to say of the current stage of government operations: “I cannot say final push, that’s too brazen.”

Nevertheless, he said the MNLF fighters have run low on ammunition and will likely be unable to stand their ground much longer. 

“They are conserving ammo, they are not able to sustain (resistance any longer). I mean, less frequent na ‘yung putok nila (their firing is less frequent). The momentum is ours,” Zagala said.

Casualties

Tutaan said the government has "neutralized" 179 MNLF rebels -- 86 killed, the rest arrestd or surrender -- while losing 11 soldiers and three policemen with 127 -- 105 soldiers and 12 policemen -- wounded.

“On the civilian side, there are seven reported that are killed and 67 wounded,” Tutaan said.

More than a thousand structures -- houses, buildings, and business establishments -- have burned to the ground, although it remains unclear whether the fires were deliberately started by the rebels or were set off by the fighting, which has included mortar barrages and, at times, air strikes.

Although Tutaan said at least 152 of the MNLF hostages have been released or escaped, "a little less than 100 or more than 100 hostages" remain in rebel hands.

The fighting has so far displaced almost 30,000 families, or more than 100,000 persons, Social Welfare Secretary Corazon “Dinky” Soliman said.

The fighting has also brought the vital port city to a standstill, with offices, including government, and schools shut down.

‘Independence’

Spokesmen of the MNLF faction loyal to Misuari described the foray into Zamboanga as part of their “war for independence.”

Late last month, Misuari, smarting from being left out of peace negotiations between the government and the rival Moro Islamic Liberation Front, declared “independence,” reviving the MNLF’s original cause of secession.

 

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