Wondering why Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels occupying coastal villages in Zamboanga City were still fighting after 12 days, President Benigno Aquino III on Friday ordered military officials to find out who was supplying ammunition to the insurgents.
The President spent a seventh day monitoring from an undisclosed place the final military offensive to crush 30 to 40 rebels holding 20 hostages on the Zamboanga coast.
“They don’t seem to run out of [ammunition]. He has asked [military] officials to look into that,” deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte told reporters in Malacañang.
“They came prepared,” military spokesperson Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala told reporters in Zamboanga City, answering the same question as the President’s.
There were reports that the rebels stockpiled weapons and ammunition in Zamboanga City long before the MNLF force led by Habier Malik stormed ashore early on Sept. 9.
But Zagala said it was “only a matter of time” before the rebels run out of ammunition.
A 14-year-old boy who was rescued from his MNLF captors in Santa Catalina village on Thursday told the Inquirer that the rebels got additional supplies of ammunition from their civilian supporters.
The boy (whose name the Inquirer is withholding because he is a minor) said there were times when MNLF commanders directed their men to take some of the hostages, preferably young ones, and leave the village to get firearms and ammunition.
“They got firearms and ammunition from the villages of Talon-Talon and Taluksangay,” the boy said in Bisaya.
The boy was rescued in the company of a suspected MNLF rebel who claimed he was a hostage and his name was Wilfredo Ramirez.
Col. Jemar Johnson Aseron, commander of the 32nd Infantry Battalion, said he checked the list of hostages and found that Ramirez was 67 years old, while the suspected rebel was in his 30s.
“We immediately separated the boy and he admitted that his companion was a rebel,” Aseron said.
Freed hostage Maricel Teves, who was wounded in captivity, said the rebels also had medicines and they treated her.
“They have supplies (of medicines),” Teves said.
She said the rebels knew the area, moving around the villages of Santa Catalina, Santa Barbara, Kasanyangan and Rio Hondo.
“They said they planned this a long time ago and that their firearms were already in these areas,” Teves said.
She said she had heard Paul Aukasa, an MNLF member from Basilan province, say that the group planned the attack even before the monthlong feast of Ramadan (July 10 to Aug. 9).
Support in villages
Former hostage Junior Morte, 60, said the MNLF rebels conserved their ammunition.
“They don’t shoot because they have to. They shoot if the need arises and if they need to defend or protect their position,” Morte said.
“I’ve seen how they deploy snipers, and they wait while the other side (military) is delivering heavy fire on their position,” he said.
Morte said Malik had “maps and contacts in the villages.”
He said Malik had bragged to the hostages that his group had support in the villages of Rio Hondo, Mariki, Talon-Talon and Mampang and that he and his men had enough food and ammunition.
Morte, who escaped from the rebels on Sept. 13, said the MNLF fighters did not carry boxes of ammunition.
“They just go to the houses where they left their supplies,” he said.
Down in number
Zagala said on Friday the government troops were going after 40 MNLF fighters.
In a talk with reporters on Thursday, President Aquino called on the remaining rebels to surrender to prevent further bloodshed.
“Life is precious to me,” Mr. Aquino said, addressing the rebel holdouts. “You may want to consider your life precious as well.”
Mr. Aquino gave the rebels from Nur Misuari’s faction of the MNLF an ultimatum.
“It is not too late to end this, so we can put a stop to the deaths and injuries. That is in your hands,” the President said.
Fighting to death
But the remaining followers of Misuari in Zamboanga City reportedly have decided to fight to death.
Sulu-based university professor Octavio Dinampo said Friday that Malik had sent text messages to other MNLF leaders saying he and his men would no longer withdraw and would “make Zamboanga their graveyard,” as the “losses to fellow Muslims and everyone else” were their responsibility and they should “answer for all of it with their lives.”
Dinampo said an MNLF friend passed the message to him around 3 p.m. on Friday.
In that message, Malik said he would surrender only if Misuari told him to do so, Dinampo said.
Dinampo said Malik, an Amir (religious leader), claimed to have performed a ritual among his remaining fighters.
“They prefer to die as martyrs in a place where they are now stuck,” Dinampo told the Inquirer by phone.
He did not say where that place was.
20 remaining hostages
Fighting continued in Zamboanga City on Friday. Two soldiers were wounded in fighting in Santa Barbara village, while two civilians were hit in a crossfire in Santa Catalina village, the military said.
Twelve days of fighting left 92 rebels, 12 soldiers, three policemen and seven civilians dead.
One hundred ten soldiers, 13 policemen, 69 civilians and nine rebels have been wounded in the fighting.
The fighting has displaced 118,819 people who are now sheltered in 57 evacuation centers in Zamboanga City and other safe places on the Zamboanga Peninsula.
Six rebels surrendered on Thursday, the military said, bringing to 72 the number of Misuari’s followers who have either surrendered or been captured.
Misuari’s followers seized about 200 civilians when they stormed into five coastal villages on Sept. 9.
One hundred seventy eight of those hostages have either escaped or were rescued. One was killed in the crossfire between the rebels and the government troops.
Twenty remain in the hands of the cornered rebels.
Abandoned by the Navy
Friday, Narabelle Bue, spokesperson for the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) in the region, said the agency would send food to evacuees on Tigbaon Island, two hours by boat from mainland Zamboanga.
The evacuees are residents of Mampang village, where government troops battled MNLF rebels on Tuesday.
The residents fled the village in boats but were intercepted by the BRP Bacolod of the Philippine Navy.
They said the Navy sailors ordered them to board the Bacolod, tied the hands of the men with rope and made them wait to be interrogated.
On Wednesday, instead of bringing the evacuees to an evacuation center in Zamboanga City, the Navy took them to Tigbaon Island and left them there.
One of the evacuees had been sending text messages to the Inquirer, saying there was no food on the island.
The Inquirer informed the DSWD about the evacuees’ situation on Friday and the agency said it would send food to them.