Fighting spreads as rebels besiege Philippine city
09/12/2013 14:03 GMT
by Ted Aljibe
ZAMBOANGA, September 12, 2013 (AFP) - Philippine forces were fighting Muslim rebels on two fronts Thursday as the government recaptured burning sections of a key southern city besieged by guerrillas opposed to peace talks.
Security forces punched into the Santa Catalina district of Zamboanga city, where thousands of people have fled four days of fighting, as the neighbourhood went up in flames, military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala said.
"Soldiers were doing offensive action to stop these (gunmen) from continuing to burn homes," he told AFP.
At least 1,500 soldiers, backed by police, have surrounded six mainly Muslim communities on Zamboanga's outskirts where about 180 Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) members were hiding out since they launched their attack on Monday.
The rebels have been using scores of people as "human shields", leading to a stand-off as security forces try to avoid civilian casualties.
"The primary mission is still containment, but they were burning communities so the soldiers had to move forward to stop them from committing these atrocities," Zagala said.
About 200 elite military and police forces moved in mid-afternoon to suppress rebel sniper fire, allowing fire trucks to move into neighbourhoods shrouded in thick black smoke, an AFP photographer saw.
But it was too late to save about 20 houses torched by the rebels during their retreat. A cat, its coat on fire, leapt out from one of the burning buildings.
Zagala said the MNLF attack was ordered by its founder Nur Misuari, who has recently renewed a call for independence, 17 years after the group signed a peace treaty that won self-rule for the Muslim minority in the largely Catholic Asian nation.
Zamboanga Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco Salazar said she contacted Misuari by telephone late Wednesday after three days of trying, and asked him to call off the siege.
She said Misuari told her he had given his men on the ground "a free hand" in deciding their fate.
Troops were also battling gunmen who attacked army positions on nearby Basilan island, killing a pro-government militiaman and wounding four members of the government forces and a civilian, Zagala said.
He said a local resident was also missing as soldiers repulsed an attempt by about 150 rebels to capture Lamitan city, Basilan's main Christian enclave.
President Benigno Aquino's spokesman Edwin Lacierda said in a statement: "While the government is exhausting all avenues for a peaceful resolution... they should not entertain the illusion that the state will hesitate to use its forces to protect our people."
Misuari has alleged the government was violating the terms of its peace treaty with the MNLF by negotiating a separate peace deal with a rival faction, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The MILF is in the final stages of peace talks with Manila and is expected to take over an expanded autonomous Muslim region in the south by 2016.
The deal seeks to end an insurgency that has killed some 150,000 people in the south.
The Basilan clash raised the official toll from the southern Philippines crisis to 15 dead.
A soldier killed in a firefight with the rebels in Zamboanga and a village watchman who was mistaken for a guerrilla and shot dead by the security forces, both on Wednesday, were among the other fresh fatalities.
Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said Thursday that officials were trying to verify allegations that the gunmen had raped some of the local women.
About 13,000 people fled to a sports complex, as aid agencies called for a humanitarian corridor for those still trapped.
"We call on those involved in the fighting to act with extreme caution to ensure civilian life and property are spared at all times," said Pascal Mauchle, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation in the Philippines, in a statement.
The mayor said officials were moving to bring back vital services to the rest of the city of nearly one million, which has been paralysed by the siege.
She called on shops to re-open, doctors to remain in hospitals and for the public to stay calm as authorities seek to convince the rebels to leave.
Officials also called on the remaining residents in the conflict areas to leave their homes and head for safety.
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