ZAMBOANGA, Philippines - Government troops were locked in a standoff with hundreds of Moro National Liberation Front guerrillas who killed six people and took civilians as hostages in Zamboanga City on Monday in a bid to derail peace talks.
Armored troops surrounded the southern port of the city after between 200 and 300 Moro National Liberation Front gunmen entered six coastal villages on its outskirts before dawn, military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala said.
The number of people held hostage was unclear. Police reported that 20 individuals were seized by the MNLF, but the military said that at least 300 persons were taken as hostages.
According to Zagala, there were 230 persons held hostage in the villages of Sta. Catalina, 50 in Sta. Barbara and 20 in Talon-Talon as of 3:45p.m.
Police said that only 87 people and not 200 were trapped in Sta. Catalina village due to the fighting and "cannot be categorized as hostages."
"Mga 87 na yan, hindi na 200 (87 and not 200)," police Chief Inspector Ariel Huesca, Region IX police spokesman, said in a text message to INQURER.net at 5:08 p.m.
The fighting erupted after soldiers backed by tanks blocked the MNLF guerrillas - armed by assault rifles - from marching into Zamboanga city to raise their flag at city hall, Zagala said.
"They were trying to march [towards] the city hall and we cannot allow that," he told a news conference in Manila, adding that two gunmen were arrested.
Zamboanga City Mayor Isabelle Climaco-Salazar said in a statement that since the start of the crisis at around 4:30 a.m. Monday, the Zamboanga City police reported that six people had been killed -one policeman, one navy man and four civilians-while 24 others had been wounded in the course of the encounter between government troops and the rebels. More casualties were reported on the enemy side.
Salazar said 20 of the hostages are in Barangay (village) Sta. Catalina, while over 200 were being held captive in Barangay Kasanyangan.
"We are in close coordination with our police and military authorities and everything is being done to solve the crisis the soonest possible time with minimal damage to lives and properties," she said.
Aside from Sta. Catalina and Kasanyangan, the other villages affected by the MNLF attack were Sta. Barbara, Talon-Talon, and Mampang.
Displaced persons were estimated at 2,500 and the number is "still increasing" in Zamboanga City Grandstand and Tetuan village as of 3 p.m., according to the Zamboanga City government.
President Benigno Aquino III's government denounced the deadly attack, which analysts said was designed to sabotage peace talks aimed at ending a 42-year-old rebellion that has claimed 150,000 lives.