By Ben Cal
MANILA, (PNA) –- The first attempt by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) to raise its flag and declare Mindanao an independent state was in Jolo on Feb. 13, 1974 but failed with the timely arrival of the 14th Infantry Battalion (IB) preventing the MNLF from hoisting its flag just in the nick of time.
The famed 14th IB commanded by then Col. Salvador M. Mison fought the well-entrenched MNLF forces in a fierce and bloody battle dubbed as the burning of Jolo that signaled the start of a long and protracted Mindanao war that killed 150,000.
In an interview with the Philippines News Agency, Mison, a retired three-star general and former AFP vice chief of staff, vividly recalled how the 14IB popularly known in the military circle as the “Avenger” crushed the MNLF forces who had virtually controlled all of Jolo, except the airport and adjoining military camp.
At that crucial time of the country’s history, government forces earlier stationed in Jolo were pinned down by the surprise MNLF attack in early February of 1974.
Mison said his battalion was supposed to be deployed in Zamboanga peninsula when he received an order from high headquarters to proceed immediately to Jolo which was taken over by MNLF forces under Nur Misuari, the MNLF chairman.
The next thing he knew, Mison, who was then a colonel in the Philippine Army, and his entire battalion board a Philippine Navy transport ship on their way to Jolo.
When the 14th IB arrived in Sulu, the naval ship could not go near the wharf because it was occupied by MNLF forces.
The navy ship came under fire every time it attempted to steer towards the wharf.
Despite the difficulty, Mison ordered the whole battalion to go to shore by wading into the water neck-deep.
Without much knowledge of the MNLF strength, Mison said he was inside his quarters when he heard the sound of gunfire first from distance when suddenly a bullet hit the tent he was occupying.
“I dropped all fours to avoid from being hit as firing was all over the place,” Mison said.
He recalled that when his troops landed in Jolo, he saw hundreds of men in fatigue uniform and thought they were government forces but it turned out they were MNLF rebels who had infiltrated the capital town.
Mison ordered his men to prepare for a counter attack and that was the start of the heavy fighting between the 14th IB and the MNLF forces that lasted for days that prevented the MNLF from raising its flag in Jolo on the eve of Valentine’s Day in 1974.
Early dawn Monday, September 9, 2013, fighting broke out between government forces and the MNLF tried when the latter tried anew to raise the MNLF flag in Zamboanga City.
At least six people were killed, 20 others wounded while some 20 others were being held hostage by heavily armed MNLF rebels who slipped secretly into the coastal area of the city at 1:30 this morning.
Of those killed one was a soldier, the other a policeman while the four were civilians.
The attack was apparently aimed at derailing the ongoing exploratory peace talks between the government and the breakaway Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) set in Kuala Lumpur this week.
Prof. Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, chair of the government peace panel negotiating with the MILF, told PNA in a phone interview Monday morning (Manila time) that the peace talks in Kuala Lumpur would push through as scheduled this week.
The MNLF rebels numbering about 100 were aboard pump-boats when they sneaked into the coastal area of the city where they were blocked by soldiers manning a checkpoint, triggering a firefight.
City residents were awakened from their sleep from the exchange of automatic gunfire and propelled grenade fired by the MNLF identified with the faction of Nur Misuari, MNLF chairman, who signed the peace pact with the government in Manila on Sept. 2, 1996, ending a 23-year fratricidal war in southern Philippines that killed some 150,000 people.
Government forces repelled the MNLF rebels who tried to go to the city hall with the aim of raising the MNLF flag. It was the second time in 40 years that the MNLF attempted to raise their flag. The first time was in Jolo, the capital town of the island of Sulu, on Feb. 13, 1974
The rebels fled to a nearby village where they held some 30 civilians as hostages, using them as shields.
The military has imposed a curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. starting Monday night. At the moment, there is a stand-off.
Soldiers, backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers have put up roadblocks in strategic points in Zamboanga City to prevent MNLF forces from spilling over to nearby towns.
“They (MNLF) were trying to march on the city hall and we cannot allow that,” Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, AFP spokesman, told a news conference in Camp Aguinaldo, the AFP headquarters in suburban Quezon City.On the other hand, the Manila government denounced the MNLF attack in Zamboanga City.
“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,” presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said in a statement.
During the fighting, the city was virtually at stand still as streets were deserted and shops, schools and government offices and the Zamboanga international airport were closed.
Zamboanga City mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar said some 1,500 people evacuated to safer places.
It may be recalled that the Philippine government and the MNLF signed a final peace agreement on Sept. 2, 1996, ending more than two decades of warfare in Mindanao, the Philippines’ second largest island.
In signing the peace pact, the MNLF dropped its bid for independence and opted for autonomy.
But in 2001, Misuari’s forces also attacked Zamboanga and Jolo that killed dozens of people and held several hostages.
The hostages were later freed in exchange for a safe passage for Misuari to flee to Malaysia where he was arrested and deported to the Philippines.
Misuari was detained in a police detention center in the province of Laguna but was released in 2008 when the government dropped all the charges against him.