ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AP) — About 200 Muslim rebels, enraged by a broken peace deal with the Philippine government, held scores of hostages as human shields Tuesday in a standoff with government forces that dragged on for a second day with no solution in sight.
More battle-ready troops and police were flown to the southern port city of Zamboanga in a bid to end the crisis. Troops have surrounded the Moro National Liberation Front guerrillas and their hostages in four coastal villages since the crisis erupted Monday.
The rebels fired two mortar rounds near the main port Tuesday, prompting authorities to order vessels to dock elsewhere. Sporadic exchanges of fire continued and some houses went up in flames in rebel-held villages, forcing more residents to flee. Helpless villagers lit candles on a sidewalk in a plea for peace to return.
Zamboanga, a commercial hub and a gateway to the south, was virtually shut down with the suspension of most air flights and ferry services. Communities near the clashes resembled a war zone with armored troop carriers lining streets, troops massing at a school, and snipers atop buildings. A mosque and its minaret were pockmarked with bullet holes.
The MNLF rebel group signed a peace accord with the government in 1996, but hundreds of its fighters held on to their arms and have recently accused officials of reneging on a promise to develop an autonomous region for minority Muslims in the southern Mindanao region. They also felt left out after a breakaway faction engaged in successful peace talks with the government brokered by Malaysia.
Last month, the MNLF issued new threats to secede by establishing its own republic.
However, its leader, Nur Misuari, has not appeared in public or issued any statements since an estimated 180 to 200 of his followers barged into Zamboanga city's coast early Monday and clashed with army troops and police. The fighting left at least eight combatants and civilians dead and 24 wounded.
During the fighting, the rebels took scores of residents hostage, holding them in houses and a mosque that have been ringed by troops.
There is no indication whether the rebels are open to talks or what they intend to do next.
President Benigno Aquino III said the top priority is to ensure the safety of the hostages and the residents of the city. He deployed top Cabinet officials and his military chief of staff to oversee the security crisis in the country's south, the scene of decades-long Muslim unrest and the homeland of minority Muslims in the largely Catholic nation.
Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said a crisis committee led by Zamboanga city Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco was open to negotiate with the guerrillas for the release of the hostages.
"The primary mission of the government now is clear: do everything possible to convince the armed MNLF group to free all the captive residents they are using as a 'human shield' against military and police operations," Roxas said.
The rival rebel group, the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front, has made substantial progress toward a new autonomy deal for Muslims in the peace talks with the government.
The latest round of those talks resumed Tuesday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said the MNLF rebels had planned to march into Zamboanga, a city of nearly 1 million people, and hoist their flag at city hall but government forces discovered the plan three days earlier and took defensive positions.
Roxas said government forces were now focusing on "saving as many lives as possible."
Presidential adviser Teresita Deles, who oversees the talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, condemned the actions by Misuari's group.
"We condemn acts of violence perpetrated by spoilers out to derail the people's journey to a just and lasting peace," Deles said, challenging the claim by some of Misuari's followers that they had only wanted to stage a peaceful protest but were attacked by troops.
"How can you demand to hoist your flag in the name of peace while brazenly bearing arms and hurting innocent civilians?" Deles asked.
Associated Press writer Jim Gomez in Manila contributed to this report.