FIGHTING BROKE OUT THIS MORNING between government forces and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels in Basilan province, just 30 kilometers away from Zamboanga City where other MNLF rebels are still locked in a standoff with security forces.
Basilan is an island-province just across the coastal regional hub of Zamboanga City. The province has been rocked in the past by fighting between government and various rebel or bandit groups, including the MNLF, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and the Abu Sayyaf.
This morning’s fighting raises concerns that MNLF forces loyal to founder Nur Misuari are already expanding the conflict from beyond Zamboanga City. Several hundred armed MNLF rebels landed in Zamboanga City early Monday morning allegedly on orders of Misuari, who has complained that his group has been left out of the peace talks with the rival MILF.
Misuari’s rebel forces are still locked in a standoff with government troops in downtown Zamboanga City for the fourth day, with the two sides exchanging gun and rocket fire. At least six people have already been killed and scores wounded in the fighting.
Mindanao Human Rights Action Center (MinHRAC) executive director Zainudin Malang said fighting broke out between government troops and the MNLF in Barangay Colonia in Lamitan City, Basilan province earlier this morning. The village is just two kilometers from Lamitan proper, where Abu Sayyaf kidnappers laid siege to the city and took more hostages in the infamous Lamitan siege of 2001.
Malang said residents had begun evacuating from the village this morning for fear of getting caught in the crossfire. Malang said there are now 3,000 residents of Barangay Colonia who are already camped out at the Colonia Elementary School, the Lamitan Central School, and the Parang Basak National High School.
Earlier, MNLF negotiator Absalom Cerveza told the PCIJ that the MNLF siege of Zamboanga was just part of a bigger operation by the MNLF, with more attacks expected in other parts of Mindanao. Cerveza said Misuari had already declared war on the Philippine government over frustrations that the government had failed to implement the 1996 peace agreement that it signed with the rebel group.
At the same time Malang said the number of displaced persons due to the Zamboanga siege continues to grow as the standoff entered its fourth day with no signs of ending soon. Malang said the number of displaced persons in Zamboanga has already reached 16,984 persons, or 3,675 families.