Filipino rebels hold hostages as human shields
By BULLIT MARQUEZ
ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AP) -- About 200 Muslim rebels, enraged by a broken peace deal with the Philippine government, held scores of hostages as human shields Tuesday in a standoff with government forces for the second day with no solution in sight.
More battle-ready troops and police were flown to the southern port city of Zamboanga in a bid to end the crisis. The troops have surrounded the Moro National Liberation Front guerrillas with their hostages in four coastal villages since the crisis erupted Monday.
The rebel group signed a peace accord with the government in 1996, but hundreds of its fighters held on to their arms and have recently accused officials of reneging on a promise to develop an autonomous region for minority Muslims in southern Mindanao region. They also felt left out after a breakaway faction engaged in successful peace talks with the government, brokered by Malaysia.
Last month, the Moro National Liberation Front issued new threats to secede by establishing its own republic.
However, its leader, Nur Misuari, has not surfaced nor issued any statement since an estimated 180 to 200 of his followers barged into Zamboanga city's coast early Monday and clashed with army troops and police. The fighting left at least eight combatants and civilians dead and 24 wounded.
During the fighting, the rebels took scores of residents hostage, holding them in some houses and a mosque that have been ringed by troops.
There is no indication whether the rebels were open to talks or what they intend to do next.
President Benigno Aquino III said the top priority was to ensure the safety of the hostages and the populace of the key trading city, where flights and ferries have been suspended. He deployed top Cabinet officials and his military chief of staff to oversee the latest security crisis in the country's south, scene of a decades-long Muslim unrest and homeland of minority Muslims in the largely Catholic nation.
Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said a crisis committee led by Zamboanga city Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco was open to negotiate with the guerrillas for the safe and unconditional release of the hostages.
"The primary mission of the government now is clear: do everything possible to convince the armed MNLF group to free all the captive residents they are using as a `human shield' against military and police operations," Roxas said.
Misuari's rival group, the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front, has made substantial progress toward a new autonomy deal for the Muslims in the Malaysia-brokered peace talks with the government.
The latest round of those talks resumed Tuesday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said the Moro rebels planned to march into Zamboanga, a city of nearly 1 million people, and hoist their flag at city hall but government forces discovered the plan three days ago and took defensive positions.
After thwarting rebel plans to seize Zamboanga's seat of government and sow trouble, Roxas said government forces were now focusing on "saving as many lives as possible."
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