x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Thousands flee on third day of Philippine rebel siege

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines // Islamist rebels took potshots at Philippine troops yesterday, while hiding behind hostages who were tied together pleading for mercy.

As the fighting intensified during the third day of a deadly siege in the southern city of Zamboanga, soldiers in armoured vehicles hunted down snipers and rebels.

Thousands of 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.

"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, which is home to 160,000 mainly Muslim residents, before dawn on Monday in an attempt to derail peace talks.

Twelve people have been killed during three days of fighting, 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 MNLF suspects in Santa Catalina yesterday, wounding one of them. Officers said the men were carrying bags of rice, in which were hidden two pistols.

In the Santa Barbara neighbourhood, black smoke rose into the sky as a local-government building burnt, but sniper fire held back a convoy of fire engines sent to put out the blaze.

Behind the burning building, two suspected rebel snipers fell from the upper sections of a mosque after troops in an armoured troop carrier opened fire on them. 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 in Malaysia, where the talks are being held, denouncing the MNLF attack.

"Their actions intend to derail the peace process, using violence and disinformation to spread fear and chaos," they 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, and the post-conflict demobilisation of the group.

About three kilometres 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," said Beth Dy, a government social worker, but added that there were only four portable toilets and no bedding, with new arrivals forced to camp on the grass in makeshift tents.

Mar Roxas, the interior secretary, said police and the military had the six besieged neighbourhoods 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 said, pleading with residents to "extend your patience further".

Officials said their efforts were made more difficult because the rebels were hiding among civilian residents, and because they had failed so far to reach the MNLF founder, Nur Misuari.

He led the MNLF throughout 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 him being jailed until 2008, when all charges against him were dropped.

He said the proposed peace deal with Milf would violate the terms of the MNLF treaty.

The government insists the deal with the Milf will encompass the interests of all Muslims.

"There is no reason for a third party to negotiate," Mr Roxas said.

The siege began four weeks after Mr Misuari declared "independence" for the Muslim regions and urged his followers to besiege government installations.

Zamboanga's mayor, Maria Isabelle Climaco Salazar, said 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 spokesman for Mr Misuari, denied that civilians were being used as human shields, but said fighters feared letting them leave in case they were caught in the crossfire.

Mr Roxas said some residents escaped or were let go but there were about 80 still being held as shields.

* Agence France-Presse