Philippine military forces continued to clash with Muslim Moro National Liberation Front rebels in Zamboanga City on Thursday for the fourth day, with the government claiming the rebels hold up to 180 hostages, according to CNN reports.
Occasional gunfire could be heard throughout the day in this city on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.
A spokesman for the Philippines Armed Forces (AFP) said government troops currently had “contained” some 180 rebels in five districts of this mostly Christian city.
“Right now we went to ensure that we keep them in those locations so they can’t get in and they can’t get out. But unfortunately they are holding between 160 and 180 hostages,” said Lt. Colonel Ramon Zagala.
He claimed the rebels’ original plan had been to land by sea, march on Zamboanga’s city hall, and raise the MNLF flag.
“We stopped that but now our immediate concern is the safety and the security of the hostages,” said Zagala. He added that government troops were not engaged in “offensive operations”, but were simply under orders to contain the rebels.
Concerning the sporadic gunfire that could be heard, he said, “Sometimes these elements (rebels) are trying to punch out and they fire at us so we also fire at them”. He noted that the hostages’ condition was unknown, but that authorities are concerned about a lack of food and water.
He said two government troops had been killed in the fighting, one on the first day during the clash at sea, and the second by sniper fire Tuesday. In addition, a total of 17 had been wounded.
“We can’t verify the rebel body count because we don’t have the bodies but the best figure that we have is that AFP has killed 14 MNLF,” he said. One rebel body has been recovered by the AFP.
Government sources say nearly 13,000 people have been evacuated from the Zamboanga districts of Talon-Talon, Santa Barbara, Santa Catalina, Kasanyangan, Canela and Mampang in Zamboanga.
Isabelle Climaco Salazar, Zamboanga’s mayor, told the media she had been in direct contact with both the head of the MNLF rebels, Nur Misuari, and the leader of the hostage takers, Habier Malik.
“Last night I was able to talk to Chairman Nur Misuari hoping that it would pave the way for the peaceful end of this crisis,” the mayor said. “What is of interest is that Misuari disowned the actions of Habier Malik, the leader of the hostage-takers with whom I communicated separately.”
Nur Misuari founded the MNLF separatist movement in 1971, which aims to establish an autonomous region for Muslims in the Philippines, a mostly Catholic nation. In 1996 the MNLF signed a peace agreement with the central government in Manila, but some MNLF members broke away and continue to resort to violence. Image/AFP/Getty Images