Armed Muslim rebels take over Philippine city

Armed Muslim rebels take over Philippine city

ZAMBOANGA - Agence France-Presse
A group of 300 heavily-armed Muslim rebels opposed to peace talks launched a major attack that shut down a bustling southern Philippine city yesterday, authorities said.

Followers of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) leader Nur Misuari entered the coastal area of Zamboanga city by boat at dawn, triggering clashes that left at least eight people dead and two dozens wounded, the military said.

Fighting later spread to the city itself, with the rebels taking 20 civilian hostages to thwart government forces.

Long-running insurgency

“The main target by the MNLF in encroaching Zamboanga City is to raise their banner of independence at city hall,” city mayor Isabelle Climaco-Salazar said. “As of now there are an estimated 20 people that have been held hostage,” she said.

The long-running Muslim insurgency in the Philippines has left more than 150,000 dead, and led to a proliferation of armed groups that have left parts of Mindanao in a constant state of lawlessness.

Misuari’s faction of the fractured MNLF, which he founded in the early 1970s, has made a renewed call for an independent Islamic state in the mainly-Catholic Philippines. 

The government has been mired in troubled peace negotiations with rebel groups -- last month Misuari again declared he was breaking away from the government because he believed they were sidelining his group.

While some within the divided MNLF respect the peace process others, including Misuari’s wing, are opposed to it. Loud shots could be heard yesterday around Zamboanga, a former colonial Spanish port with a population of nearly a million and one of the busiest commercial hubs on southern Mindanao island.

The military said that the hostages in the city were being used as human shields to prevent an army attack.

Streets were deserted and shops were shuttered. Heavily armed private security personnel as well as troops were guarding the airport, hotels, banks and other institutions. 

The attack came as the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) prepared to resume talks aimed at crafting a political settlement to be signed before President Benigno Aquino leaves office in 2016.

After a preliminary peace deal was signed last year, the remaining negotiations aim to flesh out the power-sharing terms between the national government and the MILF that is expected to head a new autonomous government, and the disarmament of its 12,000 guerrillas.