Zamboanga siege: Tales from the combat zone

NUEVA ECIJA, Philippines – For several days government troops waited as negotiators exhausted means to end the Zamboanga siege peacefully. By the time the soldiers were ordered to mount a counter-attack, however, they were already faced with a complex combat zone where rebels had taken hostages and entrenched themselves in key defensive positions.

Soldiers by the codename "Venom," "Dark Knight," "Karambit," and "Wild Orchid" remember everything that transpired in Zamboanga City from September 9 to 28, 2013 – the action, the suspense, the drama and even the comedy that came with it.

On September 9, 2013, close to 500 members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) attacked the city to protest what they considered was government's failure to fulfill the provisions of the peace agreement that the MNLF signed with the Ramos administration in 1996.

Government troops fought back in what would turn out to be the Philippine military's biggest operation in recent history. What followed was a fierce battle that stretched for 3 weeks, killed 19 government forces and 208 rebels, and dislocated 24,000 families. (READ: Zamboanga siege: Ground zero a year after)

A year after the siege, Rappler sat down with the elite troops from the Philippine military's anti-terrorist Light Reaction Battalion (LRB) at their headquarters in Nueva Ecija, where they recalled the siege that tested their wit and mettle.

Created in 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, the LRB was trained for situations such as the Zamboanga siege. It's a Tier 1 unit, whose members were plucked from the elite Scout Rangers and the Special Forces. They were trained to either become an assaulter or a sniper – skills necessary in urban combat, hostage rescue, and neutralization of high value targets

Target: KGK

The first challenge for the LRB was the KGK  Building along Lustre street, a 4-story structure with very thick walls that MNLF commander Habier Malik and his followers had turned into a well-fortified base. It would become the most important target for government troops.

MNLF Commander Habier Malik.

MNLF Commander Habier Malik.

Trained for surgical operations, the LRB troops planned to attack the KGK building. But there was a hitch: they didn't have the floor plan and they lacked enough information on rebel strength and position.

"Wala kaming floor plan. Pero sabi ng tropa: Sir, kailangan kunin na natin ito (We didn't have a floor pan. But the troops said: Sir, we should take this already)," recalled LRB commander Colonel Teodoro Llamas. 

They found a short route from the back of a hospital compound. The plan was to approach the wall of KGK, bore a hole in the wall, force their way in, surprise the rebels and free the hostages.

It was easier said than done. The plan exposed them to an open terrain and a swampy area. They had to crawl under the cover of darkness, relying on government snipers and machine gunners who would open fire at rebel positions from the roof of the nearby Zamboanga City Medical Center.

The troops eventually reached the wall and bore a hole in it while dodging bullets from the enemy side. It was about 2 am. 

"Kung hindi lang sa kasamahan namin nakikipagputukan, katay na kami doon. High risk ang ginawa namin. Medyo suicidal yun e (If it weren't for the others who were engaging the rebels, we would have been massacred. It was a high-risk operation. It was suicidal.)," recalled "Dark Knight," one of those who led the approach.

But it turned out it's not the wall they needed. "Hindi namin mapasok kasi yung pader pala na papasukan namin swamp. Tapos walang access sa mismong [KGK]. Hindi namin alam 'yung floor plan. Walang access (We coudn't enter because the wall was in a swampy area. It didn't have access to KGK, too. We didn't know the floor plan. It didn't have access)," recalled "Venom," one of the company commanders reporting to Llamas.

They had to retreat to the hospital. 

Mortars, fires, and gun holes

They made a second attempt to seize KGK after lunch on the same day. But the rebels were already alerted, waiting for the soldiers to return.

The troops had to change tactics.

They then went around the building, moving from one street corner to another in tanks, running from house to house, hitting walls with mortars.

But the rebels proved to be well-trained in this type of battle.

"We suspect that some of them have some sort of a training also. We see styles from Afghanistan or Pakistan. There were 3 layers before you can engage them, " said Llamas.

Sometimes the rebels fired through holes in several layers of walls. It was hard to tell where the bullets were coming from and harder to see where the hostages were kept. 

And then there was the burning of houses and facilities that forced the troops to stop and prevented them from immediately closing in. Sometimes the troops had to sleep in half-burned houses.

The MNLF rebels had two advantages in the prolonged firefight: they had food supplies inside the abandoned houses and they had hostages that they used as shields.

A soldier dies

On their 3rd attempt to take KGK, the elite troops suffered their first loss. They watched Corporal Michael Baltazar fall after a surprise attack from a rebel who suddenly appeared from a sewer. 

 

Some of the men couldn't help their tears while they were engaging the enemies. “Kinuha ko ang baril ni Baltazar. Dalawa na gamit ko. Sinabihan ako ng CO (commanding officer) ko na “Kalma ka lang, brother.” Sa isip ko, gusto ko na talaga pasukin KGK (I took Baltazar's firearm and was firing 2 rifles. My commanding officer had to tell me to calm down. In my mind, I wanted to enter KGK),” "Wild Orchid" recalled. 

"Venom" was wounded, too. A shrapnel hit his left hand and he bled profusely. Llamas had to order a master sergeant to drag "Venom" him by the collar to a tank that brought him to the hospital. 

It would take 5 difficult advances until the troops were able to take the building. But by then, the rebels had fled with their hostages. 

On September 18, the troops raised the flag on the roof of KGK and sang the national anthem. But this did not mean the end of the crisis; it only meant the rebels were deprived of a fortified base.

The soldiers continued to pounce on the rebels until they cornered them in a small area.

Hard lessons

Looking back, some of the troops say they should have made their move on Day 1, when one company of Light Reaction troops had the vantage point in a building where they could see the rebels marching with their hostages.

But the soldiers could not do anything. For the first 4 days they were paralyzed by negotiations held between government representatives and rebel emissaries for the peaceful surrender of Malik's followers. 

The soldiers told Rappler that during those days they played the battlefield in their minds; they would shoot the enemy, rescue hostages, show immense firepower. But it was tough to fight an imaginary war. When they got impatient, one officer mustered the courage to seek permission to attack. He was rejected.

The go-signal would come only the 5th day, September 13 (Friday the 13th), after President Benigno Aquino III arrived in Zamboanga City. (READ: Bungled chances in Zamboanga and Zambo crisis: The fog of war)

By then the rebels had taken defensive positions and camped at the KGK with hostages, putting government troops at a disadvantage.

Worse, the troops were given two – but somewhat complex – orders: rescue the hostages and neutralize the enemy. They were two different missions that required different firearms and approaches. Ano ba talaga sir?,” junior commanders would ask Llamas. He told them the priority was the safety of the hostages. 

Small team 

 

Llamas lost 9 men in the Zamboanga siege. He said he feels guilty that he was unable to visit their graves more often. 

 

He also remembers considering to beg off from the operation. "Technically, we were non-operational. Our unit was not filled up," he said. The military has always estimated their number to be 300 but, in fact, they are much smaller. The Zamboanga operation seemed too big for the small unit. 

 

But Llamas also knew he couldn’t say no.

 

The troops also felt it was a "once-in-a-lifetime" operation cut out for them.  They've rescued hostages before and have surprised terrorists in their encampments, but there was nothing like the magnitude of Zamboanga City.  There were about 100 hostages held by close to 500 rebels in 5 densely populated barangays. The elite troops' 13 years of training would be put to test.

 

"It was the real world. It's no longer training," said Wild Orchid, 42, who joined LRB in 2003.

 

The crisis would drag for 21 days, too long for a unit that is trained to finish a job in 3 days. In the end, the combat zone was  razed to the ground.

The LRB would get help from a company of Navy Special Operations Group (NAVSOG), the equivalent of the US Navy Seals, whose training was closest to the LRB except their expertise is water. The LRB and the Navsog both fall under the Joint Special Operatios Group (JSOG) under the command of  Colonel Danilo Pamonag. (READ: 'The first to respond, the last to leave')

The Scout Rangers, too, helped. They occupied the frontlines when the LRB needed to rest. 

Surrounding them were over 2,000 other troops. The Air Force brought in soldiers from the different units nationwide. They conducted air strikes and took snapshots of the battlefield. The Navy guarded the shorelines and the mangroves, while the rest of the Army protected the perimeter of the combat zone.

Everyone made sure that the rebels couldn't escape and they couldn't be reinforced.

Deaths and injuries

In the hospital, "Venom" made sure he was released immediately when he learned that his platoon leader also died in combat. He wanted to return to his troops but Llamas said no. Llamas was planning to assign another officer to take Venom's place as company commander.

Llamas recalled how an angry "Venom" stared at him when he received the orders. The battalion commander stared back at the junior officer. Nobody said a word until "Venom" teared up. 

Llamas is laughing now but it was no laughing matter back then. "Parang drama e. Kung gagawin mong cartoons yun at may talk bubble, ang sinasabi niya sa akinP@*!!#!! mo, sir. Huwag mong gawin sa akin ito (It was so dramatic. If there was a talk bubble there, he was tell me: [Expletives] Please don't to this to me)."

"Wala akong magagawa.  Naging company commander din ako. I know how he feels. Patay platoon leader niya (I couldn't do anything. I was also a company commander. I know how he feels. His platoon leader died.)," Llamas added.

Llamas allowed "Venom" to return to his men. P@*!!#!!, pumunta ka na. Kapag na-infect ang sugat mo ako mismo ang papatay sayo! ([Expletives], go! If your wound gets infected, I will kill you myself.)”

They could afford to laugh now. But what if another siege of that magnitude happened again? "We're more ready," Llamas said. - Rappler.com