Six dead, dozens injured in Philippine rebel attack
Hundreds of hostages used as human shields in major standoff
Philippine army troops deploy in Zamboanga (photo by Jocelyn P Alvarez)
At least six people were killed, 24 wounded, and some 200 others taken hostage after members of the rebel group Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) swooped on the southern city of Zamboanga on Monday.
"More casualties are reported on the enemy side," said Mayor Isabella Climaco-Salazar, adding that the city government is "mobilizing all resources" to address the situation, which started about 1:30 am.
The mayor said clashes between government troops and the rebels already affected the villages of Santa Catalina, Santa Barbara, Talon-Talon and Mampang.
Some 2,000 villagers have fled their homes to the city center, Climaco-Salazar said during a media briefing on Monday afternoon after she suspended classes in all schools in the city.
The rebel attack came weeks after MNLF founder Nur Misuari declared independence in Mindanao and the nearby islands of Palawan and Sabah in Malaysia, as a protest to the impending peace agreement between the government and MNLF's rival, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Misuari believes a peace agreement between the MILF and the government will sideline the 1996 accord with the MNLF.
The MILF is a splinter group that separated from the MNLF in 1976 over ideological differences.
Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said some 300 MNLF rebels tried to move toward the city hall early on Monday "but they were not able to punch through because of troops we deployed”.
"Their objective is to go to the city and raise their flag.... We cannot allow that," Zagala said. "There is a standoff in the area. Our mission right now is to contain them and prevent them from getting out," he added.
He said the rebels were using hostages as "human shields" to try to penetrate the government line of defense.
MNLF spokesman Emmanuel Fontanilla said in an interview aired over national television that the rebels have no plan to attack the city but only to hold a peace rally.
"The [military] has approached and harassed some groups of the MNLF, and unfortunately there was an encounter," said Fontanilla. The clashes have already spread to the nearby villages.
John Petalcorin, the MNLF's director for advocacy communication, also denied that the rebels are holding people hostage.
"If you mean like a hold-up hostage situation that you see in movies, there is none. Everyone in Zamboanga City now is a hostage inside their houses or cars as a result of their own fear, especially those inside the convergence zone," Petalcorin said in a post on his Facebook page.
Television footage, however, shows people herded and bound with ropes in the street in front of armed rebels.
Catholic Church leaders condemned the ongoing incident in Zamboanga, noting that civilians, especially children, are most affected by the fighting.
Monsignor Crisologo Manongas, administrator of the Archdiocese of Zamboanga, said he was "outraged by the incident."
"We appeal to the MNLF leadership not to involve the innocent civilians in their political demands. Negotiations with arms will not resolve anything," Manongas said. "We are appealing to them to lay down their arms."
Manongas said churches in the archdiocese were already opened for Christian and Muslims affected by the fighting.
"We are mobilizing our social action center for the evacuees.... It’s a mix of Catholics and Muslims there," Manongas said, adding that there is no reason for Muslim evacuees to be rejected by the Christians.
"This is not a religious conflict. This is a political conflict. There is no animosity between Muslims and Christians. We have a good relationship with Muslim religious leaders here," he said in a statement.
The presidential palace also condemned the incident "in the strongest possible terms."
"It is incumbent on all people of goodwill to reject the violence that has erupted," said presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda. "The ongoing attack of armed individuals in Zamboanga City, including initial reports of the possible use of civilians as human shields, is a cause for great concern."
Lacierda said 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".
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