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.
"The authorities are responding to the situation in a manner that will reduce the risk to innocent civilians and restore peace and order to Zamboanga City at the soonest possible time," Aquino spokesman Edwin Lacierda said in a statement.
Loud explosions could be heard around the former colonial Spanish port of nearly one million people.
Streets were deserted and shops, schools and government offices as well as the airport were shut down.
Heavily armed private security personnel as well as troops guarded the airport, hotels, banks and other buildings, said an AFP reporter on the ground.
"We can still hear sporadic gunshots. We don't know if this is from the government forces or from the MNLF," city hall employee Ramon Bucoy said.
Footage on television showed armored personnel carriers speeding around empty streets at dawn, with road blocks also prominent.
The attack came as the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front prepared to resume talks aimed at crafting a political settlement to be signed before Aquino leaves office in 2016.
After a preliminary peace deal was signed last year, the remaining negotiations aim to flesh out the power-sharing terms between the national government and the MILF that is expected to head a new autonomous government, and the disarmament of its 12,000 guerrillas.
Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Manila security think-tank Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence, and Terrorism Research, which has extensively covered the conflict, said the action was likely designed to sabotage the peace talks.
"(MNLF leader Nur) Misuari's motive is to convey a message… (that) the signing of the peace agreement between the government and the MILF will no longer guarantee the end of war".
He added: "The fear now is Misuari could create one united front along with other threat groups against the Philippines."
Misuari had made a renewed call last month for an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines.
"To the Philippine government, I think our message is already quite clear - that we don't like to be part of the Philippines anymore," Misuari said in his message last month, a copy of which was obtained by AFP.
He called on his forces to "surround and secure all military, police and all other installations, airports, seaports and all other vital government and private institutions".
The MNLF signed a peace deal in 1996, dropping its bid for independence and settling for autonomy, although its followers had not totally disarmed.
The government later said the agreement was a "failed experiment" with many areas remaining in deep poverty.
Top aide of Misuari sighted
A known follower of Misuari was sighted in a village in Zamboanga City on Monday, according to the military.
Ustadz Habier Malik, a top aide of the Misuari faction, was seen in the village of Sta. Catalina, military spokesman Brigadier General Domingo Tutaan said.
"He was sighted in the area. We don't want to speculate at the specifics on this but we are continuously assessing if there is direct intervention on this mater. But let me say that this is the group pf the Misuari faction of the MNLF," he told reporters at a press briefing.
There are 230 hostages held in Sta. Catalina, a military report said.
In 2007, Malik also held hostage a Marine general and a government peace team for two days in Jolo.
He held hostage then Major General Ben Dolorfino in Panamao town and his team after they demanded more benefits under the 1996 peace accord.
Malik was also linked to the deaths of two US soldiers and a Filipino soldier in a landmine blast in Sulu's Indanan town in 2009.
Based on military records, he has three warrants of arrest: frustrated murder, murder and attempted murder.
It is not the first time Misuari has attacked Zamboanga.
In 2001, he and his followers took dozens of hostages and left many more dead in Zamboanga and in nearby Jolo island, his home base.
The MNLF later freed all the hostages after several days, in exchange for free passage out of the city as Misuari fled to Malaysia, where he was arrested and deported.
He was held in a police camp near Manila until 2008, when the government dropped all charges against him.