ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AFP) – 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 armored 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 neighborhoods, 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 neighborhood 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 armored troop carrier, an AFP reporter saw.
Soldiers later poured into the building.
The fighting continued as a rival Muslim guerrilla 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 demobilization of the group.
About three kilometers (two miles) away from the fighting, 13,000 people were taking refuge in the Zamboanga sports stadium.
“We’re trying our best to provide decent facilities for them,” government social worker Beth Dy told AFP, adding that there were only four portable toilets and no bedding, with new arrivals forced to camp on the grass in makeshift tents.
Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said police and the military had the six besieged neighborhoods surrounded but ruled out a full-fledged military assault for fear of heavy civilian casualties.
“We continue to look for ways to solve this problem peacefully,” he told a news conference, pleading with residents to “extend your patience further.”
Officials said their efforts were made more difficult because the rebels were hiding among the civilian residents, and because they had failed so far to reach MNLF founder Nur Misuari.
Misuari had led the MNLF through a 25-year guerrilla war before signing a peace treaty with the government in 1996.
A similar deadly siege on Zamboanga in 2001 led to his imprisonment until 2008, when all charges against him were dropped.
Misuari said the proposed peace deal with the MILF would violate the terms of MNLF treaty.
However the government insists the accord with the MILF will encompass the interests of all Muslims.
“There is no reason for a third party to negotiate,” Roxas said.
The siege began four weeks after Misuari declared “independence” for the Muslim regions and urged his followers to besiege government installations.
Zamboanga mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco Salazar told ABS-CBN television that local government negotiators had failed to convince the gunmen to free residents and leave the city.
“They have tried to really reach out, to listen to what their demands are, but they refused to listen to anybody locally,” she said.
Absalom Cerveza, a Misuari spokesman, told ABS-CBN civilians were not being used as human shields, but fighters feared letting them leave in case they were caught in crossfire.
Roxas said there were about 80 residents still being held as shields, after some escaped or were let go.