Philippine troops surround Muslim rebels holding 200 hostage
Philippine government troops Wednesday reportedly “contained” hundreds of Muslim rebels who have held nearly 200 hostages and key areas of the southern port city of Zamboanga for three days, the state-run Philippines News Agency reported.
But the accounts of independent media conveyed a more dire picture of the standoff with fighters from the breakaway Moro National Liberation Front, who descended on the port Monday and opened fire on police and soldiers.
The rebels, whose operation has killed at least nine, are demanding the creation of an Islamic-ruled enclave on the resource-rich southern island of Mindanao.
Government forces have established a “demarcation line” to prevent the rebels from invading other areas of the city, PNA reported. But the militants were reported to have seized more hostages Wednesday and had lashed about 200 into a human shield behind which they were negotiating, the Philippine Star reported from Zamboanga.
Local government Secretary Manuel Roxas II was quoted by PNA as saying police and army reinforcements were being brought in to drive the insurgents from the port, a vital transport and shipping hub that has been locked down for three days and was due to stay idle at least through Thursday.
More than 13,000 residents were evacuated to prevent further hostage-taking, Roxas said. He also described the military approach to the confrontation as a “nonaggressive stance,” to minimize casualties.
Zamboanga Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco Salazar said the rebels were demanding international mediation. She told the Associated Press that a former governor of Sulu province, the rebels’ stronghold, had attempted to talk to the gunmen but that “they refuse to listen to anybody locally.”
The MNLF was founded in 1971. Four decades of fighting have taken at least 120,000 lives in the restive southern region.
The Manila government in 1996 signed a truce with the rebels that was supposed to have given them control of an autonomous area within the predominately Roman Catholic country.
But the front has resumed sporadic hostile actions since 2001, claiming the government has failed to deliver on its promises of support for the enclave.
The rebel group has also refused to abide by a truce and resource-sharing agreement signed last year by Manila and the now-rival Moro Islamic Liberation Front also seeking autonomy for Philippine Muslims of the Moro nation.
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