Philippines’ Deadliest Defense Crisis in South Under Aquino Ends

The Philippines rescued the last of almost 200 civilians seized by a Muslim rebel group almost three weeks ago in Mindanao, ending President Benigno Aquino’s most-serious security crisis as he focuses his attention back to fighting corruption and bolstering defense ties.

“The security crisis is over and now we go to post-conflict phase,” Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said in a mobile-phone message on Sept. 28. That same day, Aquino’s spokeswoman Abigail Valte announced a revamp at the Bureau of Customs to curb smuggling. This week, ahead of President Barack Obama’s visit on Oct. 11 and 12, the nation will host a fourth round of talks on improving access for U.S. troops.

Fighting that started Sept. 9, when more than 400 members of the Moro National Liberation Front loyal to Nur Misuari stormed coastal villages of Zamboanga City and took hostages, killed at least 203 people including 12 civilians and 23 state forces personnel, according to data from the police yesterday.

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 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.”

Clearing Operations

Presidential spokesman Ricky Carandang said the police are implementing clearing operations in Zamboanga and that the situation isn’t completely back to normal yet. “There’s still a number of stragglers, but on the whole they have lost control of the areas they seized,” he said yesterday.

More than 100,000 residents of Zamboanga were forced to flee their homes, most of them taking refuge in the city’s sports stadium after rebels torched more than 10,000 homes, according to the nation’s risk-reduction agency.

More MNLF members will be charged in the coming days for the Zamboanga attacks, adding to the 140 accused of rebellion and violation of the International Humanitarian Law, Senior Superintendent Edgar Danao, an investigator with the Mindanao police, said in a mobile-phone message yesterday.

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.

Building Funds

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, government data show.

In Manila, former head of the armed forces, General Jessie Dellosa was appointed deputy commissioner of the customs bureau along with four others, Valte said on Sept. 28. On Oct. 1 and 2, the Philippines and the U.S. are scheduled to hold talks on rotating more U.S. troops as the Asian nation boosts defense ties to counter China’s presence in disputed waters.

“Aquino’s bigger problems are still in Manila,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, a political science lecturer at the Ateneo de Manila University. The alleged misuse of funds by lawmakers and Senator Jinggoy Ejercito Estrada’s claims the government gave some senators more funds after they voted to oust former Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona are issues that needed Aquino’s attention, he said.

No Bribes

Funds released to some senators are meant to accelerate spending to support faster economic growth, Budget Secretary Butch Abad said in a Sept. 28 statement. “ To suggest that these funds were used as bribes is inaccurate at best and irresponsible at worst,” Abad said.

Corona, appointed by former President Gloria Arroyo, was ousted by the Senate in May 2012 for illegally concealing his wealth. Estrada, in a Sept. 25 speech, said senators who voted against Corona received an additional 50 million pesos each in their discretionary budgets.

“Normalcy is returning to Zamboanga,” Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. Businesses and schools have reopened while flights and sea travel have resumed, said Roxas, who, together with Gazmin, was deployed by Aquino to the southern city on Sept. 9. Aquino left Zamboanga on Sept. 22 after overseeing military and relief operations for more than a week.

‘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 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 in Muslim Mindanao. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is in peace negotiations with Aquino’s administration, broke away from MNLF because of policy differences.

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

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