Hostage crisis in Philippines brings Zamboanga to a standstill

Muslim rebel group holding scores of civilians near Zamboanga demands international mediation

Muslim rebels holding scores of hostages in the southern Philippines demanded international mediation today, as fresh rounds of fire broke out between government troops and the guerrillas on the third day of the standoff.

The rebels, enraged by a broken peace deal with the government, are holding the civilian hostages as human shields near the city of Zamboanga, on the island of Mindanao. Troops have surrounded the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and its hostages in four coastal villages. At least nine people have been killed since the standoff began Monday. On Tuesday, rebels fired two mortar rounds near the main port, prompting authorities to order vessels to dock elsewhere. The government rushed more troops and police to the city, and there were sporadic exchanges of fire. Some houses went up in flames in rebel-held villages, forcing more residents to flee.

Zamboanga, a city of 770,000 people, was virtually shut down, with most flights and ferry services suspended. Armoured troop carriers lined the streets in nearby communities, with troops massing at a school and snipers taking positions atop buildings. A mosque and its minaret were pockmarked with bullet holes.

The mayor of Zamboanga, Maria Isabelle Climaco, said the rebels were demanding international mediation. She said a former governor from the rebels’ stronghold of Sulu province tried to talk to the gunmen Tuesday, but “they refuse to listen to anybody locally”. “They say that it’s an international problem, and no less than the international community, the UN, should come in,” she told ABS-CBN television. Shots rang out as she spoke from the city hall. There were no immediate reports of anyone hurt in today’s sporadic trading of fire.

The MNLF signed a peace accord brokered by a committee of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference with the government in 1996, but hundreds of its fighters held on to their arms and have recently accused officials of reneging on a promise to develop an autonomous region for minority Muslims in the southern Mindanao region. They also felt left out after a breakaway faction engaged in successful peace talks with the government brokered by Malaysia. Last month, the MNLF issued new threats to secede by establishing its own republic.

However, its leader, Nur Misuari, has not appeared in public or issued any statement since about 200 of his followers barged into Zamboanga city’s coast early Monday and clashed with soldiers and police. The fighting left at least nine combatants and civilians dead and several wounded.

The rebels took scores of residents hostage, holding them in houses and a mosque that have been ringed by troops.

President Benigno Aquino III said the top priority was the safety of the hostages and residents of the city. He sent top Cabinet officials and his military chief of staff to oversee the security crisis in the country’s south, the scene of decades-long Muslim unrest and the homeland of minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation.

The Interior Secretary, Mar Roxas, said some officials had opened talks with the rebels “at different levels”, including a commander loyal to Misuari, but added that there had been no breakthrough.