MANILA, Philippines (3rd UPDATE) - Fighting continues on Day 6 of the Zamboanga crisis despite Vice President Jejomar Binay's announcement on Friday, September 13, that the government and a rebel group's leader have agreed on a ceasefire.
In a Twitter post of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on Saturday morning, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin denied there was a ceasefire.
"It (ceasefire) has never been implemented. Firing continues until now," Gazmin said, according to @TeamAFP.
He added: "Ceasefire has never been implemented in the first place. We'll take all steps to prevent any bloody confrontation."
In an interview on ANC, Gazmin said, "When I talked to the Vice President, he said he can reach out to Misuari and that would I agree to a ceasefire. I said only when [the MNLF] can implement the ceasefire — meaning we will only stop firing, the Armed Forces [of the Philippines] will stop firing only when they stop firing. That's the essence of the ceasefire."
"They are firing up to now as we speak," Gazmin told ANC. He likewise denied having spoken with Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) founder Nur Misuari.
AFP spokesman Lt Col Ramon Zagala told Rappler in an interview, "We continue our calibrated operations because the Misuari faction continues their attacks and they endanger the lives of civilians. They continue to burn houses so we responded accordingly."
Zagala also said he believes there was discussion of a ceasefire between Gazmin and Misuari and that Gazmin said he was open to it "for as long as the Misuari faction stop their attacks. Unfortunately they haven't stopped their attacks so while they continue their attacks, we will continue to safeguard not only our troops but also our civilians so we continue our calibrated operations."
Zagala told AFP the rebels had suffered 43 fatalities and 19 others had surrendered or been captured, meaning they have lost about a third of the estimated 180 gunmen who infiltrated 6 coastal districts of Zamboanga early Monday.
Five soldiers and policemen and 4 civilians have also been killed, while 46 members of the security forces and 24 civilians had been wounded, Zagala said. Local officials said 24,000 people have fled their homes.
About 3,000 elite troops are now advancing on MNLF positions, Zagala said, describing the military's gains as "substantial" while refusing to say which areas had been retaken by security forces.
"To stop the destruction we have to move forward. After that we don't move back," he told AFP.
In a bulletin released to the media, Zagala said he estimates there are only 100 MNLF rebels left. From 50-100 hostages remain, he added.
Zagala refused to confirm reports that MNLF commander Habier Malik is dead. He said he cannot disclose "operational data."
But Lt Col Harold Cabunoc posted a tweet that said, "There are strong indications that Ustadz Habier Malik has died. A friend from Sulu said that he was killed in the assault."
Binay earlier said he spoke with Misuari and Gazmin over the phone at about 11 pm Friday, September 13, and that the two agreed to a suspension of fighting.
His spokesman Joey Salgado was quoted in an AFP story as saying, "He (Binay) talked to (rebel leader Nur) Misuari and he talked to (Defense Secretary Voltaire) Gazmin, and they agreed to discuss a ceasefire."
The Vice President was quoted as saying on Friday, “What is important is that this evening, the agreement between the two parties is a ceasefire tonight and I will arrive there in Zamboanga tomorrow morning to talk about the mechanics of a peaceful settlement.”
Binay refused to give details on how talks for the ceasefire began and who initiated them, citing the sensitivity of the matter. As it turns out, he and Misuari were classmates at the University of the Philippines. They were together and even seatmates in a political science class.
At 7:20 am, an exchange of gunfire was reported at the inner portion of Sta Catalina, a report from PNP Region 9 said. This stopped at 8 am.
Misuari's MNLF had waged a 25-year guerrilla war for independence in the country's south before signing a peace treaty in 1996 that granted the Muslim minority limited self-rule.
He disappeared from public view when the MNLF launched the attack on Zamboanga on Monday and has accused the government of violating the terms of the 1996 treaty by negotiating a separate peace deal with a rival faction.
That faction, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), is in the final stages of peace talks with Manila and is expected to take over an expanded autonomous Muslim region in the south by 2016.
President Benigno Aquino III, who visited Zamboanga on Friday, said the talks aim to end decades of rebellion that had claimed 150,000 lives in the country's Muslim southern regions. - with reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com