Philippine government troops and Muslim rebels traded fire in the restive south as the death toll rose to 53 in the most serious security crisis President Benigno Aquino’s administration has faced.
Four civilians, six soldiers and policemen and 43 members of the Moro National Liberation Front died since fighting began on Sept. 9, military spokesman Major Angelo Guzman said by phone yesterday. About 69,000 residents have fled homes in Zamboanga City, said Adriano Fuego of the Office of Civil Defense.
The rising death toll increases the pressure on Aquino to end the standoff in Mindanao, a resource-rich region where four decades of insurgency have killed about 200,000 people and stifled development. Prolonged violence in Zamboanga, parts of which were occupied by rebel forces on Sept. 9, would give the MNLF a “strategic advantage” and highlight Aquino’s difficulty in bringing peace to the area, Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said by phone.
“We will end this at the soonest possible time,” Aquino said in a speech in Zamboanga yesterday, after warning the previous day he would use the “full force of the state” if needed against the fighters loyal to MNLF founder Nur Misuari.
The clashes coincide with the resumption of peace negotiations with a separate rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which signed a wealth-sharing agreement with the government in July.
About 70 people have been wounded since Sept. 9, while 19 rebels have either been captured or have surrendered, Guzman said. In Lamitan, 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Zamboanga, about 10,000 people fled after a gunfight between soldiers and about 100 members of another guerrilla group who tried to enter the city on Sept. 13, Ramon Santos, director at the Office of Civil Defense, said in a mobile-phone message yesterday.
Fighting in Zamboanga continued even after Vice President Jejomar Binay’s efforts to broker a cease-fire, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told DZBB radio yesterday. “We all want peace and to avoid further bloodshed. There’s a firefight now, so there can’t be a cease-fire.”
Emmanuel Fontanilla, a spokesman for Misuari, called on the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to help broker negotiations between rebel fighters and the government. “This crisis won’t end without a mediator,” he told DZBB.
Military operations are continuing in five towns, said Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala, a spokesman for the armed forces, declining to provide details for strategic reasons. About 100 MNLF fighters are holding as many as 100 hostages, he said in an e-mailed statement, adding that the rebels torched houses and fired mortar rounds at soldiers and civilians.
Aquino must reach out to the MNLF, set up four decades ago to push for an independent Muslim state, and ask Misuari to order his men to stop the attacks, said Banlaoi of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research. “Without opening channels of communication, there’s no other direction but continuing violence, which can spill over to other areas,” he said.
The escalating violence could be very damaging to the business and investment climate in Mindanao, which accounted for 15 percent of the Philippines’ gross domestic product last year, IHS Global Insight Asia-Pacific Chief Economist Rajiv Biswas said in a Sept. 13 note.
Mindanao has mineral deposits worth an estimated $312 billion. The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao had a per capita gross domestic product of 26,004 pesos ($592) in 2011, about a fourth of the national average of 103,366 pesos and the lowest among 17 regions, according to the National Statistical Coordination Board.
The government will ensure that the views of the MNLF and Misuari are considered during the crafting of a law to create a new autonomous region in Mindanao, Teresita Deles, Aquino’s spokesman on the peace process, told reporters on Sept. 11.
At Misuari’s request, Indonesia postponed a meeting it is facilitating between the MNLF and Philippine government representatives to review their 1996 peace deal, Deles told ABS-CBN by phone on Sept. 13. Misuari was head of the MNLF when the accord was signed and later served as governor of the autonomous Muslim region.
“Aquino is employing a military solution to a political problem,” Benito Lim, a political science professor at the Ateneo de Manila University, said by phone yesterday. “He has to reach out and talk to these people because the economy has suffered and many people have died.”