Muslim rebels clashed with the military in the southern Philippines, killing four people and taking at least 20 civilians hostage in violence that may strain peace talks with other Islamic fighters.
Two civilians, one soldier and a policeman were killed as the hostages were taken, while 14 people were hurt in the fighting in the southern island of Mindanao’s city of Zamboanga yesterday between government forces and the Moro National Liberation Front, police spokesman Senior Superintendent Wilben Mayor said in Manila yesterday.
The clashes may add to tension as President Benigno Aquino prepares for peace talks this month with a separate group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is seeking an autonomous Muslim region in Mindanao. A four-decade insurgency there has killed as many as 200,000 people and stifled development of an area rich in mineral deposits.
The Moro National Liberation Front is letting the government know that it should be included in peace talks, Benito Lim, a professor of political science at Ateneo de Manila University, said by phone. “You can’t achieve peace and economic development in Mindanao if other groups will continue the disruptions,” he said.
Aquino sent the heads of the defense and interior ministries to Zamboanga to ensure the safety of civilians, his spokesman Edwin Lacierda said in a statement. Lacierda said authorities were trying to restore order as soon as possible and the rebels were using civilians as human shields.
About 240 civilians were seized in Zamboanga, regional police spokesman Ariel Huesca said in a phone interview. About 1,500 people had fled their homes seeking shelter in schools and a church, Zamboanga Mayor Isabelle Climaco said. Those numbers couldn’t be immediately verified by the central government.
The Moro National Liberation Front, founded more than four decades ago to push for an independent Muslim state, signed a peace deal with the government in 1996. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front broke away from the MNLF due to policy differences.
Troops were deployed in Zamboanga late on Sept. 8 after the military received intelligence that armed men would head to the coastal town of Rio Hondo, some of them by boat, military public affairs chief Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said at a briefing yesterday. About 300 rebels took civilian hostages after learning that government forces were closing in, he said.
“Our mission right now is to contain them and prevent them from getting out of the Rio Hondo area,” Zagala said, adding that the rebels had made no demands.
The armed group accused police of harassment, saying its members had gathered in the city to hold a peace rally, spokesman Emmanuel Fontanilla told ABS-CBN. Police arrested six Moro National Liberation Front members, Huesca said in a mobile-phone message.
All commercial flights to and from Zamboanga were canceled for security reasons, the Department of Transportation and Communications said on its Twitter account. Malaysia issued a security alert along its sea borders with the southern Philippines, The Star newspaper reported yesterday on its website, citing the Eastern Sabah Security Command.
Last month, the government reported “substantial progress” toward a peace accord with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front after four days of negotiation where the two sides discussed sharing power and disarming the rebels.
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