ZAMBOANGA, Philippines – Muslim rebels seized dozens more hostages and traded gunfire with Philippines troops on Tuesday, in the second day of a stand-off after mounting a deadly attack on a southern city, officials said.
Gunshots rang out at dawn on the coastal outskirts of Zamboanga, in a confrontation between the government and up to 300 gunmen from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) aimed at derailing peace talks.
The rebels seized 20 hostages at the start of the crisis, but Zamboanga Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco Salazar said they were now holding 170 people in six villages where they are holed up.
"What we are seeing is that they are being used as human shields," Salazar said in an interview with ABS-CBN television. "We are working for the release of the hostages and a peaceful resolution of this problem."
The gunmen, followers of by MNLF founder Nur Misuari, poured into six coastal villages on Monday before mounting an assault on Zamboanga, causing panic in the city of nearly one million people.
Misuari has declared "independence" for the Muslim southern regions of the mainly Catholic Philippines and called on his followers to besiege government installations.
The initial attack killed six people, wounded 24 others and forced about 1,500 residents to flee their homes, according to the mayor.
Negotiators were now trying to convince the gunmen to release the villagers, said Muktar Muarip, a local Muslim community leader in talks with the rebels.
"We are trying to convince them to stay in that place and not proceed to the city proper, as that will only cause more bloodshed," Muarip said, adding that many of the hostages are being held inside mosques.
He said the gunmen had released four women and a child in the early hours of Tuesday.
"They forced us to go with them last night, saying they did not know the way," one of the released women, Merceditas Asinon, told reporters after she was freed unharmed in the village of Mampang before dawn.
"We won't hurt them. We just want to hold a dialogue for peace," Amin Adjirin, one of the gunmen's leaders, told local radio station DXRZ in an interview. Security forces have formed a cordon around the villages, and are also patrolling out to sea on the margin of the settlements which lie about a kilometre (half a mile) from Zamboanga city.
The fighting early on Tuesday was concentrated on the village of Santa Barbara, where soldiers positioned behind an armoured troop transport traded fire with snipers hidden among the houses, a local reporter said.
President Benigno Aquino has dispatched top security advisers to Zamboanga to work on a peaceful solution.
Misuari has criticised a preliminary peace deal signed last year by the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which split from the MNLF in 1978.
Misuari alleged the agreement marginalised his group and a peace treaty it signed in 1996.
The gunmen launched their attack as the government prepared to resume peace talks with the MILF, aimed at ending a 42-year-old rebellion that has claimed 150,000 lives.
It was the second such attack on Zamboanga since 2001, when Misuari's men men also took dozens of hostages and left many more dead.
The MNLF later freed all the hostages after several days and were given safe passage out of the city.
Misuari fled to Malaysia, where he was arrested and deported, and was kept in police prisons in Manila until the government dropped all charges against him in 2008. AFP