Muslim rebels locked in standoff with Philippine army
Police check their comrade after he is hit by MNLF sniper fire in Zamboanga City in the Philippines on September 9, 2013. Civilian hostages are being used as human shields, according to the military.
A night-time curfew was imposed in the southern port city of Zamboanga as armoured security forces surrounded between 200 and 300 Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) gunmen holed up in six coastal villages on its outskirts.
"We want an independent Mindanao," one of the gunmen, Asamin Hussin, told local ABS-CBN television, referring to the southern third of the mainly Catholic nation.
The gunmen launched their attack before dawn as the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which split from MNLF in 1978, prepared to resume peace talks aimed at ending a 42-year-old rebellion that has claimed 150,000 lives.
The city of nearly one million people woke to loud explosions as troops exchanged fire with the gunmen.
Heavily armed soldiers and police streamed into the streets firing machine guns at the rebels, sending terrified residents running from their homes clutching small children and scant belongings, ABS-CBN footage showed.
"They were trying to march on the city hall and we cannot allow that," military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala said of the gunmen, adding that two had been arrested.
The men are identified as belonging to a faction led by MNLF founder Nur Misuari, Zagala added.
The fighting quietened down in the afternoon, but there were sporadic sniper fire and mortar shell explosions as the gunmen dug in, military officials said.
City authorities later declared a curfew between 8pm and 5am as President Benigno Aquino dispatched top aides, including Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, to Zamboanga to help resolve the crisis.
"There will be no movement (by the security forces). As much as possible we will solve the case in the most peaceful manner," Roxas told reporters, adding that third parties, whose names he would not disclose, were trying to initiate negotiations.
"The authorities are in the process of identifying and pursuing all those responsible for this attack and bringing them to justice," he said.
City officials said two security forces and four civilians were killed, and 24 people wounded, while 1,500 others had fled their homes.
At least 20 people have been taken hostage and are being used as "human shields", Zagala said. Scores of others remained trapped inside their homes in the besieged villages.
The long-running Muslim insurgency in the Philippines has led to a proliferation of armed groups that have left parts of Mindanao in a constant state of lawlessness.
Misuari has criticised a preliminary peace deal signed last year by the government and the MILF, saying it marginalised his group and a peace treaty it signed in 1996.
Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Manila-based security think-tank Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence, and Terrorism Research, said the action was likely designed to sabotage the peace talks.
"Misuari's motive is to convey a message... (that) the signing of the peace agreement between the government and the MILF will no longer guarantee the end of war," Banlaoi told AFP.
Jose Lorena, a senior Aquino adviser on the peace talks, dismissed Misuari's concerns Monday.
"It is an inclusive process, not just MNLF or MILF. Whether we like it or not, there is only one people and one area," Lorena told AFP.
Monday's attack came a month after Misuari declared "independence" in Mindanao and called on his forces to "surround and secure all military, police and all other installations".
In 2001 his men also took dozens of hostages and left many more dead in Zamboanga and in nearby Jolo island.
The MNLF later freed all the hostages after several days, in exchange for free passage out of the city as Misuari fled to Malaysia, where he was arrested and deported.
He was held in a police camp near Manila until 2008, when the government dropped all charges against him.
Military officials say Misuari no longer commands all of the MNLF, which has splintered into a number of groups.
"We do not support this. This is about power. This independence thing is maybe secondary," Abdul Sahrin, secretary-general of a rival MNLF faction, told ABS-CBN in an interview.
However, analyst Banlaoi said: "The fear now is Misuari could create one united front along with other threat (armed) groups against the Philippines."
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