The Philippines: Counting the Costs in Zamboanga

By raiding the Southern Philippine town of Zamboanga, the MNLF has caused plenty of pain but gained little.

In the Philippines, authorities are counting the costs of the damage inflicted by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) following its pointless raid on Zamboanga in the country’s troubled south and the lengths to which the emergency services had to go, to protect the innocent.

About 132 people have been killed, with 213 wounded and 118,000 civilians fleeing their homes. Of the dead, the majority were rebels but the toll also included 12 soldiers, five policemen and 13 civilians.

Another 40 MNLF rebels are in custody, 300 more have reportedly surrendered and 200 hundred hostages have been rescued. The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) served 134,000 meals, provided basic essentials to 33,000 people and 30,000 liters of clean drinking water during each day of the two-week crisis.

Many of the civilians were used as human shields by the rebels, led by Nur Misuari, who founded the MNLF in 1969 and has since led a quest for an independent homeland for his Bangsamoro people, who are also Muslim.

Misuari has been politically sidelined over the past year. The storming of Zamboanga, a mainly Christian city, the taking of hostages and the issuing of a list of fresh demands proved fruitless and was widely seen as a last ditch bid to win back lost political ground.

Last month, he issued a "declaration of independence" for his ethnic Moro people and complained the MNLF had been left out of a recent wealth-sharing agreement that was struck in peace talks between Manila and a splinter insurgent group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

The MILF has also spent decades fighting for an independent Islamic state.

In the latest fighting, thousands of houses were razed and the ICRC noted that public infrastructure had suffered significant damage as a result of the fighting, as a result of which many civilians will never be able to return to their homes.

"This is a devastating reality for the population of Zamboanga as a whole," said Gwendolyn Pang, secretary-general of the Philippine Red Cross.

"Besides losing their homes, many people have lost their livelihoods,” Pang continued. “They will need to rebuild their lives from scratch, which will take considerable time and effort. Together with the International Committee of the Red Cross, we have to prepare for and work to respond to long-term displacement."

The fighting is continuing but at a much lower level. What remains of Misuari’s scattered forces will be left to regroup and perhaps fight another day. However, MNLF forces took a huge and unnecessary hit in their latest attacks and their capabilities may have been permanently weakened. That might prove to be the only bright spot to emerge after their latest debacle.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.