At about 0130L Monday morning, between 180 and 300 fighters of the Moro National Liberation Front entered six coastal villages then attempted to enter the southern Philippine city of Zamboanga, aiming to raise their separatist flag over Zamboanga’s city hall. Philippine Army forces intercepted them before they could reach the building, and six people were killed, including four civilians, in the skirmish that followed. The MNLF fighters fell back, taking about 20 hostages as human shields, but have not left the city.
There have been further skirmishes since then, and Filipino authorities now estimate that the MNLF hold close to 170 hostages in Zamboanga and surrounding villages. The Philippine Army and police are now patrolling the area and out to sea. The city was at a standstill for all of Monday, and some 1500 people are estimated to have fled the area.
The MNLF was founded in 1971 with the goal of fighting the Manila government for an independent Islamic state in the Philippines, on the island of Mindanao. (Moro is a local term for Muslim, derived from the Spanish for Moors.) A peace agreement was reached in 1996, ending a 22-year war that claimed an estimated 150,000 lives. The previous war was started when the MNLF tried to raise their flag in Jolo. This is only the second time in 40 years that the MNLF has attempted to raise that flag.
Recently, the leaders of the MNLF have spoken out that they are feeling marginalized over the current peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which split off from the MNLF in 1978. Members of the MNLF have come out saying that this latest action is intended to derail the peace talks with the MILF. The government, however, represented by the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Theresita Deles, denies that the MNLF has been left out of the peace talks, pointing out that the Indonesian Ambassador, who is moderating the talks, met with two MNLF groups in Davao last week. Furthermore, there were meetings between government negotiators and the MNLF in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and Solo, Indonesia in 2010.
The founder of the MNLF, Nur Misuari, has been silent about the clashes in Zamboanga. So far, the government has not found evidence to charge him for the attempted takeover of the city. He had been arrested in Malaysia in 2001 and extradited to the Philippines, but the government dropped all charges in 2008.
The government is insisting that it has the situation contained, and that they are interested in negotiating with the MNLF fighters. Interior Secretary Mar Roxas has even gone so far as to say that the government is uncertain if the MNLF have actually taken hostages, or are just using human shields. However, other reports, as well as the MNLF’s history, suggest that the people are indeed hostages, as the MNLF took dozens of hostages and killed many more in Zamboanga and Jolo in 2001 before releasing the survivors and being allowed to leave the city.
It is considered likely that, if the situation doesn’t escalate, the government will negotiate with the MNLF rebels to allow them to leave the area, provided they leave the civilians unharmed.