Thousands flee on third day of Philippine rebel siege

Thousands flee on third day of Philippine rebel siege
Many living near the fighting in Zamboanga fled to a nearby sports stadium to seek shelter.

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines - Muslim rebels took potshots at Philippine troops Wednesday 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) guerrillas hiding behind about 30 men who had been roped together and made to stand on the side of a street, AFP reporters witnessed.

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

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

Three days of fighting has left 12 people dead, including 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 on Wednesday, wounding one of them. Officers told AFP the men were carrying bags of rice which they had scattered on the floor to reveal two hidden pistols.

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, an AFP photographer said.

Behind the burning building two suspected rebel snipers fell from the upper sections of a mosque after taking fire from an armoured troop carrier, an AFP reporter saw.

Soldiers later poured into the building.

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