Muslim rebel attack shuts down Philippine city

ZAMBOANGA - A group of 100 heavily-armed Muslim rebels opposed to peace talks launched a major attack that shut down a busting southern Philippine city Monday, authorities said.

Followers of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) leader Nur Misuari entered the coastal area of Zamboaga city by boat at dawn, triggering clashes that had left one soldier dead and six wounded, the military said.

Fighting later spread to the city proper, with the rebels taking 20 civilian hostages to thwart government forces.

"As of now there are an estimated 20 people that have been held hostage," city mayor Isabelle Climaco-Salazar said.

"The main target by the MNLF in encroaching Zamboaga city is to raise their banner of independence at city hall," she said.

Loud shots could be heard around the city, a former colonial Spanish port with a population of nearly a million and one of the busiest commercial hubs on southern Mindanao island.

Streets were deserted and shops were shuttered. Heavily armed private security personnel as well as troops were guarding the airport, hotels, banks and other institutions, according to an AFP reporter on the ground.

The MNLF is a former Muslim rebel founded by Misuari in the early 1970s to push for an independent Islamic state in the region.

The long-running insurgency has left more than 150,000 dead, and led to a proliferation of other armed groups that has left parts of Mindanao in a constant state of lawlessness.

Misuari, a charismatic former university professor, however signed a peace deal with the government in 1996.

The MNLF dropped its bid for independence and settled for autonomy, although his followers had not totally disarmed.

The government later said the autonomy was a "failed experiment" where many areas remained in deep poverty.

Armed forces spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said the government remained in control of the area, with about 800 troops now securing key installations.

"We are trying to contain them, so that this will not spread elsewhere," he told AFP. "Our forces are guarding the city so they could not advance."

The attack came about a month after Misuari declared he was again breaking away from the government because it had allegedly chosen to sideline his group in the peace process.

The government is currently negotiating with an MNLF offshoot group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is to take over a new autonomous region by 2016.

"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 had said in a message, a copy of which was obtained by AFP.

In the message, 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."