Muslim rebels holding scores of hostages in the southern Philippines are demanding international mediation, an official said yesterday, 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 Manila, put a dozen civilians tied together by a rope on display as a human shield yesterday near the port city of Zamboanga.
Waving white flags, the hostages shouted: “Please don’t shoot” at soldiers as rebel snipers perched on roof of a residential block fired at the troops about 500m away in the Santa Barbara District of the city on the southern island of Mindanao.
In another part of the city, three wounded rebels were arrested after exchanging gunfire with police a road block to stop the rebels, a breakaway faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), from occupying other districts.
“Our troops are only returning fire. We are not launching an offensive,” Philippine army spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala said. “Our mission is to contain them not to rescue hostages.”
The standoff has paralyzed the port, with as many as 170 civilians believed to be trapped or held hostage.
Schools, shops, offices were closed for the third day. Flights and ferry services were also suspended. About 12,000 people have been displaced in five districts of the port, known as the city of flowers.
Four decades of conflict have killed 120,000 people, displaced 2 million and stunted growth in the poor, but resource-rich, south of the mainly Catholic country.
Last year, another separatist group, the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), signed a deal with the government, agreeing to a new autonomous region that gave it more political control.
That agreement, which spurred hopes of an economic revival, was opposed by the MNLF faction involved in the current standoff. It signed a deal with government in 1996, but complained Manila did not fulfill its side of the bargain.
Zamboanga Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco Salazar appealed to rebels to free the hostages and discuss their grievances with Manila, during a TV interview with network ABS-CBN.
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 on 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 said.
Philippine 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.
Philippine Secretary of the Interior Mar Roxas said a crisis committee led by Climaco was ready to negotiate with the guerrillas for the release of the hostages.
He said that some officials had opened talks with the rebels “at different levels,” including a commander loyal to MNLF founder Nur Misuari, but added there had been no breakthrough.
Troops have surrounded the MNLF guerrillas and their hostages in four coastal villages.
At least nine people have been killed since the standoff began on Monday.
Zamboanga was virtually shut down, with most air flights and ferry services suspended.
Communities near the clashes resembled a war zone, with armored troop carriers lining streets, troops massing at a school and snipers taking positions atop buildings.
The crisis comes as the MILF has made substantial progress toward a new autonomy deal for Muslims in peace talks with Manila.