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Philippine city lives in constant terror

Zamboanga City is on the front lines of the Philippines' fight against terrorists, located in the troubled south where Muslim militants have been battling troops and hitting civilian targets.

August 09, 2009|John M. Glionna

ZAMBOANGA CITY, PHILIPPINES — Restaurant owner Lyra Quitay is blind in one eye. Her arms, chest and legs bear painful black scars and her right hand is so gnarled that it resembles a claw when she signs her name.

In October 2001, a terrorist's bomb ripped through the claustrophobic downtown market where Quitay runs a tiny kitchen, instantly killing her security guard and blowing a hole in her life.

The guard had gone to investigate an abandoned duck egg cart; when he opened the lid on a pot, it exploded -- ripping off his head and leaving Quitay with injuries so severe that she still wakes up crying at night.

"Every time I even hear the word 'bomb' I get nervous," said Quitay, 43. "It's the trauma of living in Zamboanga City."

On the front lines of the Philippines' campaign against terrorism, this bustling port city on the island of Mindanao has become an armed camp, a community under siege.

At the heart of the violence is a network of Islamic terrorist groups waging war against the government of the predominantly Christian Philippine archipelago, using the jungle as cover to train recruits and organize strikes at will.

Moving through the dense terrain like phantoms in the mist, the outmanned but highly mobile Muslim rebel armies have staged repeated disappearing acts that often baffle Philippine government forces.

Just when authorities think the insurgents are on the run, they resurface to detonate a bomb, abduct a hostage or conduct a public execution, leaving Zamboanga City's 700,000 residents continually on edge.

From 2002 to 2007, the latest period for which statistics are available, hundreds of attacks killed 500 people and injured 2,000 in the southern islands of Mindanao, Jolo, Basilan and Tawi Tawi.

Scores of bombs have gone off in Zamboanga, this self-named "City of Flowers," about 460 miles south of Manila. Just as many have been discovered and defused.

Pedestrians here can stand on a downtown street corner and point to half a dozen bomb sites: a cinema, a mall, churches, department stores and a barbecue supply store.

Sometimes, the killings come on successive days -- random killings, car and motorcycle bombs -- forcing residents to avoid congregating in groups or, for the most fearful, venturing out at all.

Of Mindanao's 20 million residents, most are Roman Catholic and about 4 million are Muslim. Among the poorest and least educated residents of the Philippines, the Muslims are ripe for recruitment by rebel forces.

In a 2008 report on terrorism, the U.S. State Department says the rebel groups are extremely difficult to monitor.

"The government's control in this area is weak due to rugged terrain, weak rule of law, poverty and local Muslim minority resentment of central governmental policies," it concludes.

Local officials estimate that the rebels total 20,000, about one-tenth the number of government forces they face, but say the rebels also claim tens of thousands of sympathizers.

For years, the guerrilla movement was dominated by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which seeks the return of the southernmost islands to Muslim control.

In more recent times, another Islamist faction has added to the body count. Abu Sayyaf, which translates as "father of the sword bearer," smuggles weapons and pirates fishing boats on the troubled Sulu Sea. Its members -- who reportedly are linked to Al Qaeda and a regional terrorist group, Jemaah Islamiah -- are allegedly harboring the militants responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 200 people.

Abu Sayyaf has also carried out kidnappings, collecting ransoms to finance attacks in the region, possibly including the recent hotel bombings in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, that killed nine, authorities say.

"The possibility exists that these acts are connected," said Rear Adm. Alexander Pama, commander of the Philippine naval forces in Western Mindanao.

"It would be folly to assume otherwise."

The killings have turned Zamboanga City into a no-man's land. Outsiders rarely venture to these violent southern islands; the U.S. Embassy warns citizens to avoid them.

In an effort to promote calm, the city has formed an anti-terrorism task force and tourists can request armed guards for their stay.

Billboards advertising cultural events are interspersed with posters offering rewards for suspected terrorists.

The rich hire their own private armies, but most residents stake their safety on skittish local police officers and the Philippine National Police, who patrol in armored personnel carriers, their rifles pointed toward the street.

Officers patrol many city blocks on foot. Storefront businesses post private guards gripping rifles, ammunition belts slung over their shoulders.

At the Puericulture Center, where Quitay was wounded, 22-year-old security guard Ariel Elijah gazed out through Puma sunglasses and proclaimed that the market was safe, at least on his watch.

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