Aquino visits besieged south, warns rebels

AP, ZAMBOANGA, Philippines

Sat, Sep 14, 2013 - Page 6

Philippine officials were trying to negotiate the surrender of Muslim rebels who were holding more than 100 civilians hostage yesterday, as President Benigno Aquino III warned that his government would not hesitate to use force to end the five-day standoff.

Aquino visited troops and some of the 15,000 people displaced in southern Zamboanga City, where about 200 fighters from a Muslim rebel faction stormed into several coastal communities earlier this week and took residents hostage. Eighteen people, including 11 rebels, have been killed so far in repeated clashes between the guerrillas and the troops who have surrounded them.

Fighting once again broke out in Santa Catalina village yesterday, and ABS-CBN TV reported that voices presumably of hostages were heard shouting “cease fire, cease fire!” One government soldier was reported wounded.

Lines of communication with the rebels remain open and they are still refusing to surrender, military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said.

“We’re negotiating,” Zagala said, refusing to elaborate.

The crisis began on Monday when Moro National Liberation Front rebels, who have been overshadowed by a rival group in talks with the government for a new minority Muslim autonomy deal, clashed with troops who had foiled their plan to march through Zamboanga and hoist their flag at city hall.

The rebel leader, Nur Misuari, signed a peace deal in 1996, but the guerrillas did not lay down their arms and later accused the government of reneging on a promise to develop long-neglected Muslim regions in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation. The government says Misuari kept on stalling and making new demands.

“We will investigate all the actuations of Misuari,” Aquino told reporters, adding that his justice secretary was evaluating evidence against Misuari.

Misuari has not been seen in public since the standoff began.

“I am not that desperate to say that they cannot be brought back to the right path,” Aquino said. “But in the interest of the many ... there are lines they should not cross. If they cross that, we will be obligated to show them the force.”