Philippines’ Deadliest Defense Crisis in South Under Aquino Ends

The Philippines said it rescued the last of almost 200 civilians seized by members of a Muslim rebel group almost three weeks ago in Mindanao, prompting the government to declare that the most-devastating security crisis against President Benigno Aquino’s administration is over.

“So far, the security crisis is over and now we go to post-conflict phase,” Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said in a mobile-phone message today.

Fighting that started Sept. 9, when more than 600 members of the Moro National Liberation Front loyal to Nur Misuari stormed coastal villages of Zamboanga City and took hostages, killed at least 202 people including 12 civilians and 23 state forces personnel, according to today’s data from the police.

Four decades of insurgency in Mindanao has killed as many as 200,000 people and stifled development of the resource-rich southern island. Ending one of Southeast Asia’s most entrenched conflicts could help bring investors to Mindanao and unlock mineral deposits worth an estimated $300 billion. The government has said it faces time limits to complete a peace pact this year with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, another rebel group.

“What happened in Zamboanga is simply an indication of the defects in the peace process that has left out some groups,” Benito Lim, a political science professor at the Ateneo de Manila University, said by phone. “This is temporary,” he said, referring to Gazmin’s declaration, adding it’s a “good opportunity for the government to see the weaknesses in the peace plan; or there will be other clashes.”

Taking Refuge

More than 100,000 residents of Zamboanga were forced to flee their homes, most of them taking refuge in the city’s sports stadium as rebels fired mortar rounds and torched more than 10,000 homes, according to the nation’s risk-reduction agency. The government is assessing whether the evacuees can now return to their houses, Defense Undersecretary Eduardo del Rosario said in a mobile-phone message.

One-hundred thirty six MNLF members have been charged with rebellion and violation of the International Humanitarian Law for the Zamboanga attacks, Senior Superintendent Edgar Danao, an investigator with the Mindanao police, said by phone today.

Habier Malik, the MNLF commander who’s still at large, was among those charged and evidence is being gathered to pin Misuari down, Danao said.

The government will make 3.9 billion pesos ($90 million) available to reconstruct Zamboanga City, Aquino said Sept. 19. The Zamboanga peninsula, which contributed 2.1 percent to the economy last year, expanded 12.4 percent, the fastest among the nation’s 17 regions, the data show.

‘Sardine Capital’

Known as the Philippines’ sardine capital, Zamboanga’s fishing and canning companies employ as many as 40,000 people, Teresita Uy-Sebastian, vice-chairman of the Mindanao Business Council, said this month.

Mindanao accounted for 14.4 percent of Philippine output in 2012, according to government data. It’s also home to many of the country’s Muslim population, which accounts for about 5 percent of the Philippines’ more than 100 million people, according to estimates by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Misuari and his followers will be held accountable for the devastation they caused in Zamboanga, Aquino said in the city Sept. 22 before flying back to Manila after overseeing military and relief operations for more than a week.

Misuari founded the MNLF more than 40 years ago to lobby for an independent Muslim state, signed a peace agreement with the government in 1996 and became governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. The Moro Islamic, which is in peace negotiations with Aquino’s administration, broke away from MNLF because of policy differences.

The government’s peace deal with Moro Islamic will include all Muslims, presidential peace adviser Teresita Deles said this month.

To contact the reporters on this story: Joel Guinto in Manila at jguinto1@bloomberg.net; Clarissa Batino in Manila at cbatino@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Stanley James at sjames8@bloomberg.net Rosalind Mathieson at rmathieson3@bloomberg.net;

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