Philippines President Benigno Aquino deployed more troops to the southern city of Zamboanga as a standoff with Muslim rebels there complicated efforts to make progress in peace talks with another separatist group.
Suspected members of the Moro National Liberation Front were holed up in a Muslim residential community of about 180 people, forcing the military to keep a “healthy distance,” Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas said in a televised briefing from Zamboanga today. Four people were killed and 14 wounded in clashes in the area yesterday, Roxas said.
“We don’t expect more tensions today,” Aquino told reporters in Manila today, with the rebels facing what he called an “overwhelming” government force. Two platoons of 30 soldiers were sent to the area yesterday to reinforce about 500 soldiers in the area, and more arrived at the local airbase this morning, the Zamboanga government said on its official Twitter account.
The clashes may increase tensions as the government readies for fresh peace talks as soon as this week in Malaysia with a separate group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is seeking an autonomous Muslim region on Mindanao Island, where Zamboanga is located. A four-decade insurgency there has killed as many as 200,000 people and stifled development of an area rich in mineral deposits.
“The fresh violence will exacerbate Mindanao’s negative image as a hotbed of insurgency,” Rommel Banlaoi, executive director at the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said by phone. “The government should open communication channels with the MNLF and its head Nur Misuari because military action won’t restore peace in the region.”
Three loud explosions, likely from mortar rounds fired by MNLF forces, hit waters near the city’s port after 7 a.m. today, Seaman First Class Lauro Gonzales, a radio operator at the local coast guard station, said by phone.
Schools and offices remained shut, Zamboanga Mayor Isabelle Climaco said in a statement, while flights to and from the city were canceled.
The rebels freed five civilians, three of them children, regional police spokesman Ariel Huesca said in a mobile-phone message today.
“The military and police are exercising restraint to make sure there is no misencounter and accidental shooting,” Roxas said. “It appears that community members were not being treated as hostages since they’re not bound and could freely move about,” he said.
Troops have surrounded at least four towns to ensure violence doesn’t spill into other areas, Roxas said.
Two civilians, one soldier and a policeman were killed during the clashes yesterday, while 14 people were hurt in the fighting between government forces and MNLF rebels, police spokesman Senior Superintendent Wilben Mayor said yesterday.
The Moro National Liberation Front is letting the government know that it should be included in peace talks, Benito Lim, a professor of political science at Ateneo de Manila University, said by phone. “You can’t achieve peace and economic development in Mindanao if other groups will continue the disruptions,” he said.
The Moro National Liberation Front, founded more than four decades ago to push for an independent Muslim state, signed a peace deal with the government in 1996. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front broke away from the MNLF due to policy differences.
Troops were deployed in Zamboanga on Sept. 8 after the military received intelligence that armed men would head to the coastal town of Rio Hondo, military public affairs chief Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said at a briefing yesterday.
“Our mission right now is to contain them and prevent them from getting out of the Rio Hondo area,” Zagala said, adding that the rebels had made no demands.
The armed group accused police of harassment, saying its members had gathered in the city to hold a peace rally, spokesman Emmanuel Fontanilla told ABS-CBN. Police arrested six Moro National Liberation Front members, Huesca said in a mobile-phone message yesterday.
Mindanao accounted for 14.4 percent of Philippine output in 2012, according to government data. 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.
Last month, the government reported “substantial progress” toward a peace accord with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front after four days of negotiation where the two sides discussed sharing power and disarming the rebels.
A final agreement is likely to be signed this year, Banlaoi said, even if it doesn’t guarantee an end to conflict in the area. “The government must design a grand strategy that will make peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation and Moro National Liberation complementary rather than competitive,” Banlaoi said.