Hostages Freed in MindanaoSeptember 17, 2013 in Philippines
The siege that has continued for over a week in the city of Zamboanga, on the Philippines’ southern island of Mindanao, appears to reaching a conclusion following some dramatic developments in the past 24 hours.
Last week, forces of a rebel faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) arrived by boat in the city with the intent of raising their flag above the town hall. Clashes began with security forces that saw the rebels occupy numerous civilian districts in the town. A robust response from the authorities saw security forces rapidly surround and besiege the rebels, and a naval blockade was put in place to prevent MNLF reinforcements from arriving. The siege has brought the city of one million to a standstill. Reports indicate many of the MNLF fighters were lured into the operation with financial inducements for a supposedly peaceful rally, and were surprised to be given guns and forced to fight.
The incident has been complicated by the presence of large numbers of civilians in the areas occupied by the MNLF, who began to be used as hostages and human shields by the group. Over 100 civilians have been held captive by the group over the past week; though there was originally some ambiguity about how many were actually being held hostage, and how many were trapped by the fighting.
The government began a major assault to take back ground from the rebels, which involved the usage of helicopters, over the weekend. As of today, the military says it has taken back 70% of the areas held by the rebels. Television reports showed exhausted hostages being taken away from the front line after their week long ordeal. A military spokesman said that at least 123 civilians had been rescued in the operation so far, but it remains unknown how many civilians remain captives of the MNLF.
In a late development, the Zamboanga police chief Jose Chiquito Malayo and his two escorts were seized as they attempted to negotiate with some of the rebels. Malayo was released six hours later on condition that the cornered rebels were granted safe passage to a military camp where they could formally surrender. 10 rebels gave themselves up after this, however an estimated 50 rebels remain entrenched and sporadic fighting continues in the city. The death toll is now approach 100, with at least 86 insurgents, 9 members of the security forces and 3 civilians confirmed dead since the siege began on September 9th. While the siege has been on-going, there has not been much related terrorist activity throughout the rest of Mindanao – two small bombs in Davao city yesterday wounded 5 people, but it is not known who the perpetrators are and whether it relates to the siege in Zamboanga.
Mindanao has been scarred for decades by separatism and insurgency, which successive peace deals have failed to solve. Despite the establishment of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARRM), factions of the MNLF are unhappy about being side-lined in the on-going peace process between the government and another insurgent group (and splinter faction of the MNLF), the MILF, which has itself spawned splinter factions vowing to continue their campaign for independence.