Zamboanga rebels release Catholic priest
MNLF attackers demand safe passage of withdrawal from city
Rebel fighters released a captive Catholic priest in the southern Philippine city of Zamboanga as fighting between government troops and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) entered its fifth day on Friday.
Father Michael Ufana was taken hostage when the rebels attacked five villages in the city on Monday.
The MNLF still has more than 100 other hostages including the priest's father and sister.
Monsignor Crisologo Manongas, administrator of Zamboanga archdiocese, said Ufana was released "to deliver the demands of the armed group that are still holding the rest of the hostages."
One of the demands is safe passage out of Zamboanga for the rebels, according to a security source.
Ufana's release came hours before President Benigno Aquino arrived in Zamboanga City to personally view the situation.
The president's visit came amid reports that some members of the MNLF were planning to surrender. Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, however, denied the reports, adding that negotiations are still ongoing.
Civil society and human rights groups have called on both sides to immediately declare a ceasefire and "delineate a humanitarian corridor where civilians and injured combatants may be safely assisted."
The groups also called on the Organization of Islamic Conference to help resolve the conflict in Zamboanga and "sustain the role they have long-fulfilled in ensuring the hopes for peace in Mindanao."
The city council on Friday ordered the "forced evacuation" of residents in at least six villages affected by the conflict.
Sheila Covarrubias, spokesperson of the city’s crisis management committee, said the measure was meant to ensure that no innocent civilians will be caught in the crossfire.
"All residents are advised to leave," Covarrubias said. "[They] have been asked to seek safety because we can’t say what will happen," she added.
As of Friday afternoon, local time, several houses were seen burning in at least two villages while heavy exchange of gunfire could be heard around the city.
In nearby Basilan province, a combined MNLF and al-Qaeda-affiliated Abu Sayyaf force numbering around 100 rebels renewed attacks on the town of Lamitan.
The Mindanao Human Rights Action Center reported fighting in at least six of the town’s villages. Two people were reported killed, seven others wounded, while six people were missing.
Lamitan deputy mayor Roderick Furigay said the rebels got to within a few hundred meters from the town center. "There were many of them," he said.
"We were subjected to enemy mortar fire but we were able to repulse their onslaught," said Col Carlito Galvez, commander of the army's 104th Brigade.
Galvez said civilian movement in Lamitan was already "restricted," adding that the Christian communities on the outskirts of the town had already been evacuated.
The military said at least 18 people have been killed and dozens of others wounded in the continuing conflict in Zamboanga and Lamitan.
Military spokesman Brig Gen Domingo Tutaan said 11 MNLF rebels had been killed as well as two soldiers, three policemen and two civilians.
At least 28 soldiers, six policemen, and 18 civilians were wounded.
More than 20 MNLF fighters have been captured, he added.
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