Philippine forces were fighting Muslim rebels on two fronts yesterday as clashes broke out near a southern city being besieged by guerrillas opposed to peace talks with the government, officials said.
Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) gunmen attacked army positions on Basilan island, wounding at least three soldiers, the military said.
Basilan is across a narrow strip of sea from Zamboanga, a major port city where about 180 MNLF fighters have been locked in sporadic clashes with troops since Monday, displacing about 13,000 residents.
“We would like to believe this is just part of their diversionary tactics,” regional military spokesman Colonel Rodrigo Gregorio said of the Basilan attacks.
He said two other guerrilla groups with links to the MNLF were also involved in the fighting in Basilan, a jungle-clad island that is a traditional stronghold of the militants.
On the fourth day of the MNLF siege of Zamboanga, rebels fired mortars and snipers targeted government troops as they advanced on militant positions, a reporter said.
The gunmen are followers of Nur Misuari, who founded the MNLF, which launched a long separatist rebellion in 1971.
He made a renewed declaration of “independence” a month ago after alleging the government was violating the terms of a 1996 peace deal that created a Muslim self-rule area in the south by negotiating a separate peace deal with a rival faction, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Misuari has accused the government of reneging on its promises, and of sidelining his group in favor of the MILF, which is expected to take over an expanded autonomous region by 2016.
The government insists the proposed deal with the MILF would honor the MNLF agreement as it seeks to end an insurgency that has killed about 150,000 people in the south.
The rebels are hiding out among between 80 and 180 “human shields” in several neighborhoods on the city’s outskirts, officials said.
Philippine Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said yesterday 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 said.
Gregorio said hundreds of elite soldiers backed by police had restricted the rebels’ movement, but the presence of civilians was preventing any effort to end the siege by force.
Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala added: “We cannot just conduct offensive actions without taking account of the hostages.”