Philippine leader warns Muslim rebels as battles rage

ZAMBOANGA - Philippine President Benigno Aquino visited a southern city infiltrated by Muslim rebels Friday, vowing to end the crisis and warning the gunmen against harming civilian hostages or resorting to flagrant destruction.

Aquino urged the port city of Zamboanga to stand firm as Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fighters battled troops for a fifth day in what he said was a "desperate" bid to derail efforts to end a long Muslim rebellion.

"Our forces and equipment on the ground are overwhelming," he told a news conference, while stressing the crisis could not be resolved swiftly without risking heavy casualties.

"We cannot rush this. We have to be deliberate in order to ensure no lives are lost unnecessarily," he said.

"We're not setting a deadline but we have decisive points. If they harmed hostages, resorted to arson and crossed other lines that should not be crossed, our security forces have instructions on what to do."

At least 22 people have been killed and 52 wounded in five days of fighting in Zamboanga, while 19 of the gunmen have surrendered or been captured, military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala told AFP.

At least 15,000 people have fled their homes because of the fighting, which is contained in six heavily populated areas of the city of nearly one million, officials said.

They said nearly 200 Zamboanga residents have been seized as hostages and are being used as human shields by about 180 gunmen, who have also set fire to parts of the six coastal districts.

Government forces had moved into those areas to prevent more destruction, Zagala said.

Despite Aquino's warning, two sections of the district went up in flames in the afternoon, AFP reporters saw, with firemen watching helplessly as they were pegged back by sniper fire.

At the nearby Santa Catalina district, a male hostage was shot in the back as he ran for safety toward military lines, an AFP photographer saw. An ambulance rushed the middle-aged victim to a nearby hospital.

A large convoy of vehicles were seen leaving the conflict zones Friday, carrying hundreds of civilians, after the Zamboanga government passed an ordinance ordering all 160,000 residents in these areas to leave.

Police checked their identification papers to make sure no rebels slipped out.

Chief Inspector Ariel Huesca, a police spokesman, told AFP the areas occupied by the gunmen were "shrinking".

A second military spokesman, Brigadier General Domingo Tutaan, told AFP: "We envision that there will be a peaceful result to this with the armed men laying down their arms and releasing the civilians."

Aquino warned of the threat of potential "sympathetic attacks, diversionary attacks and opportunistic attacks" by other armed groups in a region that had suffered from more than 40 years of armed rebellion.

"If they try elsewhere I am confident that our forces will be ready to meet them head-on and prevent any more atrocities."

Groups of at least 100 Muslim gunmen attacked army positions on nearby Basilan island on Thursday and Friday, killing one person and wounding 11 others over two days, Zagala said.

The crisis began when armed followers of MNLF founder Nur Misuari tried to march on the Zamboanga city hall before dawn Monday.

The rebels have since been pinned down in a few largely Muslim communities, setting fire to houses while firing at troops to keep them at bay.

Misuari is not engaged in negotiations, but is open to the idea, his spokesman Absalom Cerveza told ABS-CBN.

Misuari accuses the government of violating the terms of a 1996 peace treaty by negotiating a separate peace deal with a rival faction, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

The MILF is in the final stages of peace talks with Manila and is expected to take over an expanded autonomous Muslim region in the south by 2016.

The deal seeks to end a Muslim insurgency that has killed some 150,000 people in the south since the 1970s.