Rebels fire from behind human shields

Residents believed to be hostages of Moro National Liberation Front rebels wave white cloth and shout to the government soldiers "stop firing" while standing in the rebels' positions in downtown Zamboanga City in southern Philippines September 11, 2013.

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines - Muslim rebels took potshots at Philippine troops yesterday as they hid behind hostages who were roped together pleading for mercy, on the third day of a deadly siege in a key southern city.

As the fighting intensified in Zamboanga city with soldiers backed by armoured troop carriers hunting down snipers and rebels, thousands more residents fled, many of them taking refuge in a sports stadium.

In the nearby Santa Catalina district, troops confronted Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) guerillas hiding behind about 30 men who had been roped together and made to stand on the side of a street.

"Stop firing! Stop firing!" shouted the men while waving white blankets as the gunmen behind them took potshots at the soldiers.

About 180 guerillas poured into six of the port city's coastal neighbourhoods, home to 160,000 mainly Muslim residents, before dawn on Monday in a bid to derail peace talks.

Three days of fighting has left 12 people dead - two civilians, a police officer, a soldier and eight rebels - according to the latest official tally. Another 36 people have been wounded, including three policemen and 12 soldiers.

Police also arrested two male MNLF suspects in Santa Catalina yesterday, wounding one of them. In the Santa Barbara neighbourhood, black smoke rose into the sky as a local government building burned, but sniper fire held back a convoy of firetrucks sent to put out the blaze.

The fighting continued as a rival Muslim guerilla group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), held talks with Philippine government negotiators aimed at ending a rebellion that has claimed 150,000 lives in the south of the mainly Catholic nation. The two sides issued a joint statement at the venue of the talks in Malaysia, denouncing the MNLF attack.

"Their actions intend to derail the (peace) process using violence and disinformation to spread fear and chaos," the statement said, calling for the perpetrators to be "stopped and held accountable".

The talks are fleshing out a draft power-sharing arrangement between the national government and a Muslim self-rule area in the south that is expected to be led by the MILF, as well as the post-conflict demobilisation of the group.