Philippine troops were locked in a standoff with hundreds of Muslim gunmen who killed six people and took at least 20 hostages yesterday in a bid to derail peace talks.
Armored troops surrounded Zamboanga after between 200 and 300 Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) gunmen entered six coastal villages on the southern port city’s outskirts before dawn, Philippine military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala said.
“They were trying to march on the [Zamboanga] City Hall and we cannot allow that,” he told a news conference in Manila, adding that two gunmen were arrested.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III’s government denounced the attack, which analysts said was designed to sabotage peace talks aimed at ending a 42-year-old rebellion that has claimed 150,000 lives.
“The 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,” Aquino spokesman Edwin Lacierda said in a statement.
Loud explosions could be heard around the former colonial Spanish port of nearly 1 million people. Streets were deserted and shops, schools, government offices and the airport were shut down.
Heavily armed private security personnel and troops guarded the airport, hotels, banks and other buildings, a reporter said.
“We can still hear sporadic gunshots. We don’t know if this is from the government forces or from the MNLF,” city hall employee Ramon Bucoy said.
Zamboanga Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar said two security forces and four civilians had been killed, and 1,500 people had fled their homes.
The military and police said at least 20 people were taken hostage.
The attack came as the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) prepared to resume talks aimed at crafting a political settlement to be signed before Aquino leaves office in 2016.
After a preliminary peace deal was signed last year, the remaining negotiations aim to flesh out the power-sharing terms between the central government and the MILF, which is expected to head a new autonomous government, and the disarmament of its 12,000 guerrillas.
Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Manila-based security think tank Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence, and Terrorism Research, said the action was likely designed to sabotage the peace talks.
“[MNLF leader Nur] Misuari’s motive is to convey a message ... [that] the signing of the peace agreement between the government and the MILF will no longer guarantee the end of war,” he said.
“The fear now is Misuari could create one united front along with other threat groups against the Philippines,” Banlaoi added.
Misuari made a renewed call last month for an independent Islamic state in the south.
“To the Philippine government, I think our message is already quite clear — that we don’t like to be part of the Philippines anymore,” Misuari said in the message.
He called on his forces to “surround and secure all military, police and all other installations, airports, seaports and all other vital government and private institutions.”
The MNLF signed a peace deal in 1996, dropping its bid for independence and settling for autonomy, although its followers had not totally disarmed.
The government later said the agreement was a “failed experiment,” with many of the autonomous areas remaining in deep poverty.
It is not the first time Misuari has attacked Zamboanga.
In 2001, he and his followers took dozens of hostages and left many more dead in Zamboanga and in nearby Jolo Island, his home base.
The MNLF freed all the hostages after several days in exchange for free passage out of the city as Misuari fled to Malaysia, where he was arrested and deported.
He was held in a police camp near Manila until 2008, when the government dropped all charges against him.