by Alito L. Malinao
MANILA, Sept. 10 (Xinhua) -- The pre-dawn Monday attack in Zamboanga City in Southern Philippines by some 300 armed followers of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which has left six dead and scores injured, could derail the ongoing peace process in Mindanao.
The attack occurred a day before negotiators of the Philippine government and the mainstream Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) were to resume their talks in Kuala Lumpur to tackle the issues of power-sharing in the final peace accord that could end the decades- old conflict in the Southern Philippines.
The MNLF, founded by former university professor Nur Misuari in the early l970s, is the forerunner of the MILF. Misuari's signing of a peace agreement with the government in l996 prompted the present leaders of the MILF to break away and form their own group.
"We want an independent Mindanao," one of the gunmen, Asamin Hussin, told local ABS-CBN television network on Monday.
Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Manila think-tank Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence, and Terrorism Research, which has extensively covered the Muslim conflict, said that any peace accord between the government and the MILF "will no longer guarantee the end of war" in Mindanao.
He added that the fear now is that Misuari could create one united front, along with other Muslim groups, to fight the Manila government. He was referring to the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), led by Umbrah Kato who bolted from the MILF, and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Abu Sayyaf.
The Philippine government, however, is confident that MNLF attack in Zamboanga City would not affect the ongoing peace negotiations.
"We are going to negotiate with MILF. This will not affect the peace process. We believe that the peace process that we have entered into with the MILF is a peace process for all of Muslim Mindanao not just the MILF," Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda said at a press conference.
On Tuesday, there was still a tense standoff between government forces and MNLF militias who were holed up in a section of the city using scores of civilians as hostages. Zamboanga City has a population of about one million.
Among those killed in the initial encounter on Monday were one policeman, one Philippine Navy personnel and four civilians.
In a statement, Lacierda said that attack in Zamboanga City, including initial reports of the possible use of civilians as human shields, is a cause for great concern.
"The authorities are responding to the situation in a manner that will reduce the risk to innocent civilians and restore peace and order to Zamboanga City at the soonest possible time," he said.
President Benigno Aquino has dispatched Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas to Zamboanga City to resolve the standoff peacefully.
Citing information from the field, military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said the MNLF fighters took some 300 hostages from different villages in the predominantly-Christian city.
According to Zagala, the MNLF is holding hostages to be used as leverage in negotiating with the government forces now that they are surrounded, adding that their priority now is to secure the safe release of the hostages.
For two days now, Zamboanga City has been shut down, with classes and work in public and private offices suspended. Most business establishments have also closed.
All commercial flights to Zamboanga International Airport and ferry services to the Port of Zamboanga were also suspended as government troops secured points of entry to prevent the entry of more Misuari followers into the city.
Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar said the MNLF fighters were holding several city residents and were demanding to be allowed to march to the City Hall where they could hoist their flag.
More than a month before Monday's attack, the MNLF began to consolidate its forces through so-called peace rallies where they demanded for the full implementation of the peace agreement the group signed with the government in 1996.
Thousands of MNLF members, some carrying rifles, massed on July 25-29 in Lampaki village in Indanan town, Sulu province, the southernmost tip of the Philippine archipelago, to press their demand for an independent state.
Later, the MNLF confirmed that its chairman, Nur Misuari, has declared an independent "Bangsamoro Republik" on Aug. 12 and appointed himself as chief of the Bangsamoro Armed Forces.
On Aug. 19, hundreds of MNLF members and supporters gathered at Masjid Tulay village in Jolo town, Sulu, to express support for the declaration of independence.
Misuari, however, was not in the Zamboanga raid and his whereabouts remains unknown.