Philippine rebel attacks spread
Other clashes reported as Zamboanga siege goes on
Troops stand guard outside a hospital in Zamboanga City (Al Jacinto)
Attacks by the Philippine rebel Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) spread to the southern province of Basilan on Thursday, while a standoff with government forces continued in nearby Zamboanga City.
The MNLF reportedly teamed up with the al Qaeda-affiliated Abu Sayyaf group when it launched an assault on the town of Lamitan, only to be repelled by government troops.
Mujiv Hataman, governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), told ucanews.com that the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) also aided the MNLF. The BIFF is a faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is negotiating a peace accord with the government.
Around 100 rebels joined in the Lamitan attack on Thursday morning. "[The people] were prepared when the rebels attacked," the governor said.
Three government soldiers died and nine others were injured, said Lt Col Ramo Zagala of the military's public information office.
In nearby Tipo-Tipo town on Wednesday evening, some 50 rebels took part in an attack but also met with soldiers who were already in position around the town.
Zagala said the Lamitan and Tipo-Tipo assaults were intended to divert attention from the siege in Zamboanga. "But we will not be caught flat-footed. We are focused here and there," said Zagala.
The province of Basilan is a 45-minute boat ride from the city of Zamboanga, where some 300 MNLF fighters, who entered the city on Monday, continue to clash with government troops. Some 250 people are being held hostage.
Military intelligence sources, who asked not to be named, said MNLF fighters have been amassing around Lamitan and the military had already re-aligned its forces "to address the concern."
Brig Gen Domingo Tutaan, military spokesman, said authorities are also monitoring the buildup of MNLF forces in the province of Sulu, where MNLF leader Nur Misuari is believed to be staying.
"The Armed Forces chief is in Zamboanga City. We beefed up our personnel, our units on the ground," Tutaan said. "We’re considering all possibilities that will happen, from situation one to situation 10.”
Official reports said 12 people were already killed, including two civilians, a police officer, a soldier and eight rebels, after three days of fighting in Zamboanga. Another 36 people have been wounded, including three policemen and 12 soldiers.
Social welfare officials said around 14,000 residents from at least six villages have already fled and are housed in 15 evacuation centers. Some 3,000 others are believed trapped in their homes.
The UN Resident Coordinator in the Philippines, Luiza Carvalho, said in a statement today: "The United Nations Country Team calls for an immediate end to the violence, deeply regrets the loss of innocent civilian lives, and calls for safe passage of civilians caught in the cross fire."
The MNLF signed a peace deal in 1996, but claim the government has broken its word on developing the southern region. It has also opposed peace talks between the government and the MILF.
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