COURAGE: A CHRONICLE OF THE ZAMBOANGA SIEGE
Throughout its colorful history, the capability of the Special Action Force to deal with different kind of adversities had been repeatedly put to test. Whether faced against secessionist groups, coup plotters or plain terrorists, the troopers always found ways to win despite the odds being stacked against their favor. The latest crisis that put the country in the news once again was unlike the others as a disgruntled lawless group tried to take over a peaceful city and stopped at nothing to achieve their purpose. But just like the earlier incidents, good still triumphed over evil in the end.
On September 8, 2013, the Battalion Commander of the SAF unit based in Zamboanga City was called by the Zamboanga City Police Office regarding the sighting of more or less 30 armed men in the villages of Rio Hondo and Sta Catalina. Intelligence sources said the group, which belongs to the Moro National Liberation Front- Misuari Faction, was planning to march to the Zamboanga City Hall the next day. During the coordinating conference conducted in response to the threat, SAF, together with the Zamboanga City Public Safety Company, was tasked to intercept these MNLF members in Barangay Sta. Barbara and Barangay Rio Hondo and prevent them from moving to other parts of the city.
As midnight approached, SAF and ZCPSC personnel proceeded to Rio Hondo to verify the reported presence of armed men in the area. Upon coordination with Rio Hondo barangay officials, they found out that 150- not 30 as earlier reported- fully armed men were spotted assembling inside the mosque of the village. They then ordered the evacuation of residents of Rio Hondo, Sta. Barbara and Sta Catalina to prevent them from getting caught in the crossfire.
SAF and ZCPSC personnel strengthened their positions and prepared for the worst as armed confrontation became more imminent in the early hours of September 9. They were divided into two: Section 1 would block the enemy approach in front of Sta. Barbara Barangay Hall while Section 2 stays at the ZCPSC headquarters to augment the other units.
DAY 1 STARTS WITH A BANG
Upon their arrival at the Sta. Barbara Barangay Hall, Section 1 was fired upon by armed MNLF members who have occupied Sta. Barbara Elementary School just across the street. The troopers immediately retaliated, triggering a running gun battle between the police force and the advancing enemy. Some of the troopers were injured when a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) hit their positions but the medics rushed to patch up their wounds. As Section 2 rushed to reinforce their embattled comrades, they too were subjected to heavy fire from enemies positioned along Lustre Street. The battle for control of the city has started.
SAF troopers rush towards their respective positions to prevent the MNLF from occupying key government facilities.
Despite taking a number of casualties against the troopers, the enemy side kept growing in number and threatened to overrun the position of Section 1. Section 2 was able to link up with Section 1 and provided covering fire as they evacuated the wounded, passing through houses and walls until they reached the ZCPSC building at the corner of Fernandez Street and Veterans Avenue to the west. PO2 Christopher Hernaez, who was hit by RPG shrapnel in the temple, was rushed to Ciudad Medical Zamboanga for medical attention.
Lustre Street became the site of intense armed encounters on Day 1 as the MNLF attempted to take over the City Hall and Zamboanga City Medical Center.
At the command post, the Battalion Commander learned that several troopers and ZPSC personnel were still inside a building near the Barangay Hall. Some of them were wounded and MNLF members were just few meters away from their position. The troopers immediately set out to rescue the personnel while SAF snipers positioned at Southern City Colleges provided suppressive fire as they ran along Fernandez Street. The troopers breached the walls in order to gain safe passage and to serve as concealment during the extraction of the troopers and two ZCPSC personnel who were immediately brought to Brent Hospital. As the sun rose over the city, combined SAF and ZPSC forces were able to repel the attackers who tried to occupy key government buildings despite being outnumbered.
Fighting also raged in Barangay Sta. Catalina as another MNLF group tried to take over the Zamboanga City Medical Center. At 6:40 AM, SAF troopers and ZCPO SWAT personnel proceeded to ZCMC following reports that gunmen were sighted in the area. With the help of suppressive fire from SAF snipers, the assaulting personnel slowly made their way towards ZCMC.
They arrived at the ZCMC at 9:30 AM and were informed that armed men were already in the vicinity of the hospital. They immediately engaged in a firefight the MNLF members located at Lustre Street, just meters away from their position and were advancing towards the hospital compound. For 30 minutes, the MNLF members tried but failed breach the troopers’ position and were forced to retreat to the houses with their casualties. The troopers then secured the blue print of the hospital and to help them map out their security strategy.
PNP personnel plan their defensive positions.
SAF troopers and ZCPSC personnel took advantage of the break to regroup in front of Gate 2 of the hospital along Veterans Avenue to plan their deployment and sectors of fire. For the whole day, government troops continually engaged the MNLF members, who were armed with RPGs and mortar, as hospital personnel and patients were transferred to other locations. SAF snipers at the top floor of the ZCMC hospital also exchanged fire with enemy snipers who took position at the KGK Building in Lustre Street and were armed with bigger cal.50 rifles, resulting in the extreme damage to the building. Before the day ended, all people inside ZCMC were safely evacuated.
By early evening, the troopers managed to secure the hospital and other vital installations from the rampaging group even as gunfires could be heard all night long up to the second day. They also limited the activities of the enemy in certain villages by constricting their movements inside their perimeter line. From these positions, PNP and AFP personnel would spent the next three weeks flushing out the lawless elements from their hideouts in vicious house-to-house fighting.
Sadly, PO2 Hernaez later died of his wounds at 4:00 AM on September 11 at the Ciudad Medical Center. His remains were flown to the SAF Headquarters in Bicutan, Taguig City before it was transported to his hometown in San Quintin, Pangasinan for burial.
ADDITIONAL TROOPERS SENT TO THE CITY
While monitoring the development of the incident, the SAF Headquarters in Bicutan, Taguig City was already in the thick of preparations to augment the field units in the besieged city. The plan involved a logistical undertaking never been previously carried out, especially involving a distance of several hundred kilometers. Hundreds of personnel, to include equipment such as armored V-150 vehicles, ammunition and food provisions, would have to be transported from Manila to the conflict area on short notice.
Due to the suspension of operations at the Zamboanga Airport, supplies and personnel were transported using the C-130 planes of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. At 7:15 AM on September 10, 2013, SAF Director PDIR CARMELO E. VALMORIA, together with the first batch of reinforcements, arrived at Edwin Andrews Air Base to personally supervise the operations of the troopers. PDIR VALMORIA spent his first day in the city attending meetings with the Secretary of the Interior and Local Government Mar Roxas, members of the Local Crisis Committee led by the city mayor and other PNP and AFP officials.
PDIR CARMELO E. VALMORIA gives his words to newly arrived troopers at the Edwin Andrews Air Base.
At the conclusion of the meeting the following day, three (3) task forces were created for the operations against the MNLF. SAF, together with elements of the Philippine Army and Philippine Marines, was tasked cover Sta. Catalina and Kasanyangan as part of Task Force “BRAVO.”
The next few weeks saw the government forces engage the enemy in pitched battles involving sniper fires, close quarter combat and long range artillery. Lustre Street and Ayer Village became no man’s lands. Despite continuous fire from the enemy side, the police and AFP personnel could not simply fire back for fear of the safety of hundreds of civilians still in the hands of the MNLF. To compound matters, the enemy has resorted to burning houses in an attempt to draw government forces in the open. However, this tactic also became their undoing. As more houses burned down, their world became smaller and movements became more limited, allowing government forces to gradually close in on them.
Aerial view of the still smoldering portion of Ayer Village in Barangay Sta. Barbara
SAF INTENSIFIES OPERATIONS
While AFP personnel pounded the enemy in Sta Barbara and Rio Hondo, SAF troopers and attached PNP and Amy personnel did their part in Sta. Catalina and Kasanyangan. These coordinated approaches were designed to tighten the noose around the enemy who entrenched themselves inside abandoned residences and commercial establishments. Because the safe release of the hostages was the main objective, the troopers employed a slow and deliberate approach to avoid civilian casualties and ensure that every area gained would be free of threats from MNLF members.
At 11:00 AM on Day 5, September 13, SAF and Army personnel conducting clearing operations in Sta. Catalina apprehended two persons entering the restricted zone. When asked about their identities, both men claimed they were hostages who escaped from their captors. As they were being interviewed, alert troopers detected the uneasiness on the part of the older man and separated him from his companion. That was when they found out that one of them was an MNLF member who was trying to sneak out of the area using the hostage as a human shield. He was immediately arrested and turned over to the Zamboanga City Police Office for custody.
Troopers arrest a suspected MNLF member (top) after he tried to sneak out of their perimeter with an elderly hostage (bottom).
As what they have done since the conflict started, SAF troopers would stop just before dark at their limit of advance, take their supper and hold their line for the rest of the night. Then they would continue with their advance at dawn before taking a break at mid-day. The action was about to intensify in the evening of September 13 when government personnel conducting patrol at the border of Sta. Barbara and Sta. Catalina detected unusual movements coming from the other side of the perimeter.
Using their night vision scopes, they saw several armed men crawling from the charred houses towards their location, probably trying to escape government cordon. Under cover of darkness, the troopers silently took position behind concrete hollow blocks. They waited for the men to get near them before the team leader asked them to stop on their tracks. Although taken by surprise, the gunmen fired at the troopers’ positions. The troopers responded with short but accurate fire, forcing the enemy to withdraw and leaving their fallen companions behind. Despite sniper fires from the enemy, the troopers were able to recover the remains and weapons of six enemies killed.
Some of the firearms, with red ribbons as countersigns, recovered from MNLF members killed in encounter.
Only hours after their plane touched down in the morning of September 17, SAF troopers based in Bicutan, Taguig City found themselves marching towards Barangay Mampang where Regional Public Safety Battalion-9 personnel were engaged in a fierce gun battle against the enemy. Located in the eastern part of the city, Mampang is a coastal village occupied by an MNLF faction since the first day of the siege. With their escape route to the sea blocked by Philippine Navy ships, the MNLF members holed up in the mangrove trees which were separated from the residential areas by a 100-meter wide salt bed (called asinan in local dialect).
The fresh reinforcements were tasked to keep the MNLF members from going to the populated portion of the village in the north. Intermittent gunfire could be heard in the distance as they approached the area. However, they did not expect the events to intensify in a short while.
Troopers maneuver to prevent MNLF members from taking a strategic area in Barangay Mampang.
When the SAF troopers arrived at the outskirts of the village, a heavy firefight was already under way with the RPSB-9 personnel positioned at the ground overlooking the mangrove trees. The SAF troopers were then instructed to cover the opening at the left flank which the MNLF members were desperately trying to take in order to break through the government cordon. Under heavy fire, the troopers crawled in the sand and reached the gap before the MNLF members could. Without cover and with only a little shrubbery to conceal them, the first teams to arrive held their ground until the rest was able to catch up. Just in time, a V-150 armored vehicle arrived and provided more covering fire against the determined enemy.
The MNLF members, who were already more than halfway through the contested area, were forced to turn back to the mangroves. Had they reached the place ahead of the SAF troopers, they would have a better position overlooking the government troops and an easy access to the residential areas. Instead, the government troops were given more time to strengthen their perimeter security and plan their next attack on the enemy. At noon, the troopers learned that several persons had been taken prisoners by the MNLF members they encountered earlier and they were told to hold their fire as negotiations were ongoing.
As the hours passed and no solution was in sight, the team leaders prepared their men for an assault to rescue the hostages before nightfall. Fortunately, another bloody encounter was avoided when the hostage takers voluntarily surrendered in the afternoon.
Waiving a white flag, MNLF members surrender to government troops after a day-long firefight and negotiation.
MORE ENEMIES SURRENDER
As the government cordon got tighter around them, the MNLF were aware that they would eventually be cornered in a matter of days. Some hard core members chose to fight until the very end while a number of them put their lives on the line trying to escape. Others knew the futility of their actions and surrendered to government troops with hope of going back to their families and living normal lives.
On September 19, 15 MNLF members yielded to 44IB, PRO-9 and SAF troopers in Ayer Village, Sta. Catalina. Recovered from their possessions were several high caliber firearms, computers, cellular phones and jewelry which were probably taken from the houses they ransacked. With their surrender, the troopers would have fewer people to worry about with the siege already on its second week. More importantly, the arrested MNLF members provided valuable information on the whereabouts of their comrades who were still hiding in the ruins.
More MNLF members chose to give up as their world became smaller.
Although the situation in Barangay Talon-talon was not as tense as that in the other affected communities, the troopers nevertheless remained on full alert against the MNLF. The long coastline and thick vegetation offer a good landing site and cover for reinforcements coming from nearby Basilan Province. The area is also a possible escape route by MNLF members from pursuing government troops because of its proximity to Sta. Barbara, Sta. Catalina and Kasanyangan.
The task of sealing the area was given to SAF troopers based in Zambales Province who have just arrived at the city a few days earlier. Aside from its counterterrorism-trained members, the company was also supported by personnel who are adept in long distance reconnaissance and engagement. Together with Regional Public Safety Battalion- 7 personnel, they maintained a 24-hour watch in and around the village to ensure that no MNLF member would sneak in and blend with the residents.
Residents in Barangay Mampang were alarm when an armed man walked into their village and took two female hostages.
At 2:40 PM on September 23, SAF troopers were alerted by the RPSB-7 commander who spotted an armed man walking with two women- a teenager and an elderly- in the salt bed parallel to their position. As they drew nearer, the troopers figured out that the man might be an MNLF member trying to escape government troops towards the populated part of Barangay Mampang.
The team leader shouted at him to stop but he kept his pace, his hands firmly holding the women’s arms and a rifle visibly slung on his shoulder. Realizing that the women had been held hostage, snipers positioned themselves at the left flank overlooking the salt bed. However, they could not get a clear view of the gunman because he had put the hostages between himself and the snipers. The maneuvering troopers, meanwhile, followed the gunman and the hostages along as they walked between their position on the left and the mangrove trees on the right.
The tense situation escalated when the gunman repeatedly ignored requests from the troopers to let go of the women and surrender. If the gunman makes a successful escape towards the residential areas, then he would certainly take other hostages and put more lives in danger. Aware of this possibility, the team leader instructed the snipers to take a shot if given the opportunity. But as the gunman continued to walk towards Mampang away from the snipers’ position, the distance between them steadily increased. To complicate the problem, civilians were drawn by the scenario and started flocking to the area. They might get hit in the crossfire if a full-blown firefight ensues.
As the manuevering team continued to tail them, the gunman became more agitated and signaled with his hands to the troopers to stay out of the way. This distraction might have caused him to lose track of the snipers who were now slightly behind him. With the women out of their line of fire, the snipers, now almost 200 meters far back, were at last presented a clear view of the hostage taker who was still on the move. The team leader gave the order to the snipers to fire before the gunman realizes his mistake. A single shot rang out and the gunman fell on his face just as the maneuvering team grabbed the hostages and brought them to safety.
The troopers later found an assault rifle, jungle bolo, assorted ammunition and an MNLF identification card from the suspect.
The suspect was taken down after he did not heed the order of the troopers to release his hostages.
BATTLE AT MARTHA DRIVE
As the days dragged on and casualties on each side continue to mount, the safe rescue of hostages remained the top priority of the government. Up to this point, about dozens residents are believed to be still in the hands of MNLF members and were being used as humans shields.
At past midnight on September 24, the SAF Battalion Commander received a report from intelligence sources that several gunmen and their hostages- some of them wounded- were sighted at a house near Martha Drive in Sta. Barbara. The area had become an MNLF stronghold during the siege, with snipers hidden inside the buildings, ready to pick apart approaching government troops. Knowing that they would soon transfer to another location if not intercepted immediately, the commander and his officers drew up a plan for a rescue operation. The troopers were divided into two groups: the assaulting team which was tasked to enter the house and the blocking force positioned at the possible escape route in case the captors would withdraw. At daybreak, the troopers and their army counterparts set out for their mission before enemy snipers could detect them.
At 6:15 AM, the assaulting team spotted the target building, a two-storey residence that was not totally burned like the others. It was made of light materials, surrounded by a concrete wall and its windows covered with curtains- an indication that there may be persons inside. With the permission of the Battalion Commander, the assaulting personnel cautiously approached the house. After throwing a stun grenade through the door, they entered the room, identified themselves as police officers and ordered the occupants to raise their hands up. The men armed men did not resist and put down their weapons. Their companions in the room, including women and a senior citizen, recognizing the troopers, identified themselves as the hostages.
Hostages breathe a sigh of relief following their rescue after weeks of captivity at the hands of the MNLF.
The rescued hostages were brought to a waiting Humvee where the troopers treated their wounds. But while the civilians and arrested suspects were being processed, armed men in the surrounding buildings fired at them, hitting some of the arrested MNLF members. The medics evacuated the wounded to a safe area while the rest of the team returned fire towards the enemy. Luckily, no hostage or trooper was hit when RPG rounds were fired at them.
SAF medics treat an MNLF member after he was shot by his comrades.
SAF troopers breach a wall in order to engage MNLF members hiding at the other side.
As the assaulting team advanced deeper into enemy-held area at 9: 30 AM, they came under heavy rifle and RPG fire from MNLF members concealed inside the surrounding houses. They immediately returned fire and radioed their situation to the blocking force. While assaulting team held their position, the blocking force, which was located several blocks away, broke through barricades to reinforce them. The MNLF members were taken by surprise when the SAF troopers suddenly appeared from behind a high wall. Some of them were not able to react and were taken down right away while the rest, including the wounded, ran back to their positions towards the houses.
Despite almost non-stop fire from MNLF snipers, the troopers were able to evacuate their wounded comrades. When the dust settled in the afternoon, six hostages were rescued, six MNLF members were killed, eight were captured and several high-powered firearms were recovered.
Among the items recovered after the bloody encounter were assault rifles and a recoilless rifle of “bazooka.”
Unfortunately, Police Officer 2 Enrique E. Afable and Police Officer 2 Lawin B. Salisa were declared dead at the hospital, making the ultimate sacrifice in saving innocent civilians from the MNLF members.
THE LAST SHOTS OF THE CONFLICT
As the fighting wound down to its final moments, government troops became more wary of MNLF stragglers attempting to break free from their encirclement. They have earlier tried using the cover of darkness but were repelled by the troopers who had night fighting capability. Some used human shields but were shot down by sniper fires. The rest who chose to fight saw their number steadily decrease by the day. As the weeks passed and their area became more confined, desperation set in among them and many decided to go for broke.
Troopers found a virtual mini-armory in one of the last major engagements of the siege.
One such incident occurred on September 29 as combat operations were about to be concluded. At 9:50 AM, SAF and Army personnel were conducting foot patrol amid burned houses in Sta. Catalina when the place suddenly came alive with rifle fires. Armed men darted across, making one final attempt to escape from government encirclement towards the nearby residential areas. The troopers took all of them down one after the other with accurate shots until the area became silent once again. When it was over, they counted six dead enemies together with their firearms and equipment.
Recovered items included six (6) High Powered Firearms from the slain MNLF rebels believed to be the hardened young fighters of MNLF Cmdr. Khabier Malik.
On the next day, AFP personnel on patrol in Sta. Barbara Street came under fire from snipers hidden inside a house. For the entire duration of the conflict, enemy snipers have become a great concern for government troops not only because of the number of casualties they caused but also for not sparing civilians among their targets. They are extremely hard to trap, repeatedly evading the troops by constantly changing locations to avoid being detected. This time would be a different story, though.
The resulting exchange of heavy fire caught the attention of SAF troopers who were positioned at the opposite side several blocks away. Working in tandem with their counterparts, the troopers quickly manuevered to block the possible exit of the gunmen while staying out of the line of fire of the soldiers. They watched while thick smoke covered the snipers’ nest, knowing that the enemy would be scampering from the area anytime soon. A few minutes later, a man covered in soot and clutching an assault rifle emerged from a burned house. The troopers shouted at him to drop to the ground but he instead pointed his gun at them. Before he could pull the trigger, though, a trooper felled him with a single shot.
SAF troopers were able to outwit this MNLF sniper as he tried to go around their position.
WORST IS OVER, TF SUYOD ACTIVATED
On September 29, TASK FORCE SUYOD, headed by PDIR VALMORIA and composed 265 personnel from different PNP units and the Army EOD-K9 section, was activated for the clearing operations in order to guarantee the safety and security of the affected villages before the residents return to their homes. With the active threats from the MNLF eliminated, the government needed to remove unexploded ordnance (UXO), improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and remaining MNLF members who might still be hiding. In the course of its operations, however, TF Suyod also discovered dozens of decomposing cadavers inside burned houses and along the mangrove swamps that the enemy once occupied.
SAF troopers receive instructions from the Deputy Director, PCSUPT NOLI G. TALIÑO at the rooftop of KGK Building.
In the next few days, several vital establishments resumed operations after their areas have been declared safe. On September 30, Zamboanga City Medical Center, which was site of a heated armed engagement on the first day, was turned over by PDIR VALMORIA and CDRRMC Chairman and Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle C. Salazar to the management. In the afternoon of the same day, Southern City Colleges was turned over to the school administrator in a simple ceremony attended by TF Suyod and city government officials.
Local government officials inspect the damages at the coastal villages.
Government services also returned to normal as the Hall of Justice, Department of Budget and Management, Land Transportation Office, Bureau of Internal Revenue, City Social Development Center, Women Crisis Center and Sta. Barbara Brgy Hall resumed operations on October 3. Despite incessant rains which stalled the clearing activities a few times, TF Suyod was able to expedite its operations until all villages were cleared on October 18.
On October 30, half the troopers involved in the operations returned to a hero’s welcome at the SAF Headquarters in Bicutan, Taguig City. The other line units stayed behind to help in the law enforcement operations in the still restive city ahead of the delayed Barangay Elections which was finally held on November 25. Weariness could be seen through their eyes after going toe-to-toe with the enemy for almost a month. But their faces also could not hide the elation as they once again fulfilled their responsibilities and made a difference in the lives of their fellow Filipinos. After all, it is all part of the life they chose to live.
SAF troopers finally return home after two exhausting months.
THE PRICE WE PAY
In the aftermath of the siege, SAF suffered a total of 11 casualties including three who were killed while in the performance of their sworn duty. They are enormous losses for their respective families and to the unit which has prided itself as a breeding ground of heroes in the organization.
Nevertheless, the troopers were inspired by their acts of valor instead of being demoralized. In spite of that setback, they held their heads high and continued the fight with more resolve until the end. The incident proved once again that SAF troopers could always be counted on to help our countrymen from any trouble anywhere they are needed. This leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind what we can do in times of great difficulty.
Keeping the country safe from all threats is never an easy task considering that our enemies will never stop thinking of ways to sow fear into our hearts and minds. The recent turn of events, therefore, should serve as a reminder that if we wish to maintain peace in our society, we must be prepared to pay a steep price for the freedom we enjoy. Today, public safety is not a matter limited only to the law enforcement sector but a greater endeavour that everyone in the society must be part of. To this end, everybody must be prepared to heed the call when it comes.