Following armed clashes with the military yesterday, a serious security incident is on-going, as it appears members of a rebel faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) have taken an unconfirmed number of individuals hostage in the town of Zamboanga, on the southern island of Mindanao in the Philippines. Mindanao has been subject to insurgency and unrest for the past several decades and despite some broadly successful peace efforts in the past remains extremely unstable. MNLF founder Nur Misuari recently declared a commitment to an independent state in the region in an attempt to derail the on-going peace process with other separatist factions.
Zamboanga, the commercial and industrial centre of the Zamboanga Peninsula, is a predominantly Christian area and not part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), the autonomous province created following a 1996 peace deal with the MNLF. The incident began yesterday, when MNLF members arrived by boat on the coastal city, reportedly wanting to raise their flag of independence above the city hall. Clashes began with security forces that saw at least 6 people killed, 4 of whom were civilians. A robust response from the police and military has seen the MNLF fighters surrounded in the Rio Honda district, a busy area close to the city centre, as well as in other locations on the coast.
Reports indicate The MNLF fighters have taken over 30 civilians hostage as a stand-off with the military has developed, with up to 180 caught in the stand-off in some form. It appears MNLF fighters may have moved into their communities to use them as human shields, though Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said many were not actually bound or being intentionally held captive, instead being trapped by the incident. Negotiations overnight saw 5 hostages released. The exact numbers of individuals concerned, and their exact status as hostages or not, currently remains unconfirmed.
Security forces appear to have the situation largely under control, with large numbers of elite troops rushed to the city and a naval blockade put in place to prevent MNLF reinforcements from arriving. A curfew is in place and thousands of residents have been displaced, with commercial flights in and out of the city cancelled. The incident remains on-going, though the government is reportedly prepared to negotiate. A broadly peaceful resolution seems likely, with the rebels allowed to leave the city if the civilians are unharmed. Nevertheless, the situation retains the potential to deteriorate extremely rapidly. While security forces throughout the rest of Mindanao are on alert, no other incidents have occurred thus far.
Mindanao has been scarred by extreme unrest and various insurgencies over the past decades. Muslim separatists the MNLF concluded a peace deal with the government in 1996 that led to the establishment of the ARMM, though the MNLF rapidly splintered following this. The largest splinter faction, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, has recently begun to conclude its own peace deal with the government, a process that has led factions of the MNLF to renew their campaigning for full independence due to fears of being side-lined. There are currently numerous armed groups operating in Mindanao, ranging from kidnapping gangs to the local Al Qaeda affiliate, Abu Sayyaf. There is also an on-going communist insurgency in addition to Islamic separatism. Bombings and kidnappings are a favoured tactic and extremely common, though Zamboanga has remained relatively peaceful in recent years. Human shields have been used by rebels in the region in past incidents.
The security situation in the southern Philippines remains very complex and fractious. This poses a serious danger for visitors, and an extremely high degree of security awareness should be maintained at all times. In addition to terrorism, violent crime and kidnap for ransom remains a very high risk. Public transport links and places frequented by foreigners throughout the island are particularly vulnerable. All but essential travel to the entirety of Mindanao, and all travel to the ARMM, should be avoided.
The death toll from a bombing in the Philippines yesterday has risen to eight overnight. The blast occurred yesterday afternoon on the southern island of Mindanao which has in the past been plagued by Islamic terrorism and continues to suffer from an extremely poor security situation.
Reports indicate a vehicle was rigged to explode on Sinsuat Avenue, a busy road in Cotabato city, and that the detonation occurred during the Monday afternoon rush. The apparent target of the blast was Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi, a city administrative official and the younger sister of Cotabato’s mayor, Japal Guiani. She had reportedly received numerous threats in recent days.
The bomb exploded as her bulletproof vehicle was passing by when Guiani-Sayadi was on her way to visit victims of recent flooding. She was hurt and has been discharged from hospital, but one of her police bodyguards and 7 bystanders were killed. 33 people were injured, of whom 13 remain in hospital, some in a serious condition. The blast also damaged telephone and power cables, causing power outages in nearby areas. Some government statements suggest they have identified possible perpetrators from witnesses, but other sources have resisted speculation as to the identity and motives of the attackers.
The attack comes amidst a heavy security presence in in the area for the upcoming Eid celebrations in the city. Intelligence, police and military units across the Philippines, including in Manila, have now reportedly been alerted to the possibility of future attacks. It is the second bombing in recent weeks, as another attack on July 26th in an upscale entertainment district in Cagayan de Oro killed eight and wounded 40. The perpetrators of that attack currently remain unidentified, and it is unknown as of yet if there is a connection with yesterday’s incident.
Cotabato city is the capital of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), though the ARMM does not actually have jurisdiction over the city itself. The ARMM is comprised of provinces that are predominantly Muslim, and has a high level of self-governance and autonomy. For several decades, there was separatist violence in the province led by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Successive negotiations led to the signing of a peace deal with the government in 1996.
However a complete solution to separatist violence in the southern Philippines has continued to prove elusive, particularly in the face of extreme fragmentation amongst terrorist organisations within Mindanao. The MNLF’s splinter groups include Abu Sayyaf, a jihadist terrorist organisation, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The MILF is seemingly approaching a final peace deal with the government of the Philippines following a preliminary agreement in October last year and six days of talks this July. Some commentators have attributed yesterday’s bombing to a MILF splinter group unhappy with any deal short of independence, known as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, though official confirmation of their involvement is unavailable as yet.
The complex security situation in the southern Philippines poses a serious danger for visitors, and an extremely high degree of security awareness should be maintained. Public transport links are particularly vulnerable and should not be used, however attacks could be indiscriminate and target places frequented by foreigners. Outside of terrorist activity, incidents of kidnapping and gun crime also remain very high. All but essential travel to Mindanao, and all travel to the ARRM, should be avoided.