Priest held hostage; more clashes in Zambo

CRISIS. A combat police force sniper gets into position in this photo taken Monday, Sept 9, 2013 in Zamboanga City. Photo by AFP/Stringer

CRISIS. A combat police force sniper gets into position in this photo taken Monday, Sept 9, 2013 in Zamboanga City.

Photo by AFP/Stringer

MANILA, Philippines (4th UPDATE) – Heavy exchange of gunfire continued early Tuesday, September 10, between government troops and members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in two villages in Zamboanga City, as the crisis entered its second day.

At least 5 hostages were released but a Catholic priest was held hostage by MNLF members. Our contributor based in Barangay Sta Barbara in the city said that a businessman from Basilan, Muctar Muarip, facilitated the release of 5 hostages early Tuesday in Barangay Talon-Talon, one of 4 villages being held by MNLF members.

But the armed men also held hostage Fr Michael Ufana in Barangay Sta Catalina, according to Rappler contributor Richard Falcatan.

This information was corroborated by the Mindanao Human Rights Action Center, which cited two sources, "including an eyewitness to the taking of the priest." Police intelligence officials also confirmed that the priest was indeed taken hostage. They're verifying reports that Ufana's father and a sibling were also held hostage.

"There's still a lot of tension here," Falcatan said, hearing gunshots at 8 am. MNLF members continued to occupy many houses in Sta Barbara and have managed to hoist a flag in one of them, he added. 

At least 3 military trucks arrived in Sta Barbara to augment government troops.

At around 7:30 am Tuesday, more troops from the Philippine Army, Navy, Air Force and the Philippine National Police arrived at the Edwin Andrews airbase in Zamboanga City.

The MNLF, which signed a peace agreement with the Ramos government in 1996, is opposed to an ongoing peace process with the rival Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which they feel would marginalize them.

Factionalized MNLF

The MNLF's old bailiwicks are in Western Mindanao, including Zamboanga, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Basilan. The MILF's stronghold is Central Mindanao, notably the Cotabato provinces, Lanao, and Maguindanao.

At least 5,000 MNLF members have since joined the police and military as integrees, as part of the 1996 agreement. This is the reason they're technically not called rebels since they dropped their secessionist bid in 1996. But they also have been behind various attacks on government troops and civilians in the last decade.

The MNLF's founding chairman, Nur Misuari, himself became governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), a political entity that now stands to be abolished once the government and the MILF sign a final peace agreement that seeks to establish the Bangsamoro region. The ARMM over the years has been unable to improve the lives of poor Muslim communities.

In the last few months, Misuari has been telling his men that the government has yet to fulfill its commitments in the 1996 peace pact. 

But the MNLF is factionalized. Misuari leads one faction, prompting authorities to brand them "MBG," or the Misuari Breakaway Group. Another faction, based in Central Mindanao, is led by former Cotabato City Mayor Muslimin Sema. He supports the general direction of the peace process with the MILF and ordered his troops not to support the attacks in Zamboanga City. A third faction is led by former MNLF leaders who formed the Islamic Command Council (ICC) at the height of Misuari's talks with the Ramos government. This is led by Hashim Boghdadi. 

Mortars, more hostages?

In Zamboanga City, police officials said " there's fighting and firing of RPGs and mortars" in Barangay Talon-Talon. "The MNLF increased the number of hostages, taking civilians from their homes," the same officials said.

Based on data from the Department of Social Welfare and Development, at least 250 hostages remain in the hands of the MNLF members. The bulk - 220 - are in Barangay Sta Catalina. At least 20 hostages are in Talon-Talon while 10 are being held in Sta Barbara, according to DSWD data. It's not clear if this total already excludes the 5 hostages released in Talon-Talon early Tuesday.

Mayor Isabelle Climaco said that around 30 armed MNLF members, using civilians as human shields, were blocked by police and Task Force Zamboanga personnel at a checkpoint near Brgy Sta Catalina, she added.

Authorities are addressing the crisis, but said they "would not divulge details of the operation." Climaco also called on media to refrain from airing sensitive information "to prevent panic and confusion."

Classes in all levels and work in all offices remain suspended. The city's streets remain deserted.

"The imposition of curfew from 8 o’clock last night to 5 am today was smoothly implemented with no apprehensions or violations recorded by the police," Climaco said.

Up to 400 suspected members of the MNLF took over 4 barangays in Zamboanga City early Monday morning.

MNLF members belonging to the faction of their founder Nur Misuari have set two demands for government as they continued to hold at least 80 hostages and threatened to mount more attacks in the city and neighboring provinces. – with reports from Richard Falcatan and Angela Casauay/