Fighting spreads as rebels besiege Philippine city
12 September 2013, 21:00
Zamboanga - Philippine forces were fighting Muslim rebels on two fronts on Thursday as troops launched an offensive to retake parts of a key southern city besieged by guerrillas opposed to peace talks with the government, officials said.
Rebels torched houses as about 200 elite military and police units punched into one of the gunmen's strongholds in Zamboanga where the fighting has forced about 13 000 to flee their homes, an AFP photographer saw.
"The rebels set fire to not less than 20 houses. We need firemen here quickly to save the people's homes," army Captain Henry Bual told AFP as smoke blackened the skies above Santa Catalina district of the port city.
Soldiers and police are fighting 180 Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) guerrillas, who holed up in Zamboanga's coastal outskirts on Monday and were using scores of "human shields" to protect them from government attacks.
The government said the rebel attack was in response to MNLF founder Nur Misuari's renewed call for independence, 17 years after the group signed a peace treaty that won self-rule for the Muslim minority in the largely Catholic Asian nation.
Troops were also battling gunmen who attacked army positions on nearby Basilan island, wounding at least three soldiers, the military said.
Soldiers repulsed an attempt by about 150 rebels to capture Lamitan city, Basilan's main Christian enclave.
"The armed forces stopped them, and after a two-hour fire fight, are now in hot pursuit," President Benigno Aquino's spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said in a statement.
"While the government is exhausting all avenues for a peaceful resolution... they should not entertain the illusion that the state will hesitate to use its forces to protect our people."
Misuari had made a renewed declaration of "independence" a month ago after alleging the government was violating the terms of its peace treaty with the MNLF by negotiating a separate peace deal with a rival faction, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The MILF is expected to take over an expanded autonomous Muslim region in the south by 2016.
The government insists the proposed deal with the MILF would honour the MNLF agreement as it seeks to end an insurgency that has killed some 150 000 people in the south.
The militants are hiding out among between 80 and 180 "human shields" in several Zamboanga neighbourhoods, officials said.
Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said on Thursday that officials were trying to verify allegations that the gunmen had raped some of the women.
The alleged violations were reported by a resident who escaped from the gunmen, she added.
Apart from the three soldiers wounded in Basilan, one soldier was killed in a fire fight with the rebels on Wednesday, while a village watchman who was mistaken for a guerrilla was shot dead by the security forces, said regional military spokesperson Colonel Rodrigo Gregorio.
The killings raised the death toll during the standoff to 14, including three civilians, one police officer, two soldiers and eight rebels in four days of fighting.
Gregorio said two MNLF "stragglers" fleeing the area were also arrested on Wednesday.
About 13 000 people had been evacuated to a sports complex, as aid agencies called for a humanitarian corridor for those still trapped.
Zamboanga Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco Salazar said she finally managed to reach Misuari by telephone late on Wednesday, and asked him to call off the siege.
She said Misuari told her he had given his followers on the ground "a free hand" in deciding their fate.
She said officials were moving to bring back vital services to the rest of the city of nearly one million, which has been paralysed by the siege.
She called on shops to re-open, doctors to remain in hospitals and for the public to stay calm as authorities established communication lines with rebel leaders to convince them to end the siege.
"I again [appeal] to the hostage takers, please let go of the hostages, especially the elderly, the sick, the children and people with disabilities," she said.
Meanwhile, officials called on residents who had been holding out in their homes in the conflict areas to leave and head for safety.