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Thursday September 12, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Thursday September 12, 2013 MYT 7:51:12 AM
Dangerous situation: Villagers believed to be hostages signalling with a white blanket to stop the military from shooting during ongoing clashes in Zamboanga city. — EPA
ZAMBOANGA: Muslim rebels took potshots at Philippine troops as they hid behind hostages who were roped together pleading for mercy, on the third day of a deadly siege in a key southern city.
As the fighting intensified in Zamboanga city with soldiers backed by armoured troop carriers hunting down snipers and rebels, thousands more 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 rebels poured into six coastal neighbourhoods, home to 160,000 mainly Muslim residents, before dawn on Monday in a bid to derail peace talks.
Three days of fighting has left 12 people dead, 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 male MNLF suspects in Santa Catalina, wounding one of them. Officers said the men were carrying bags of rice which they had scattered on the floor to reveal two hidden pistols.
In the Santa Barbara neighbourhood black smoke rose into the sky as a government building burned, but sniper fire held back a convoy of firetrucks sent to put out the blaze.
Behind the burning building two rebel snipers fell from the upper sections of a mosque after taking fire from an armoured car. Soldiers later poured into the building.
Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco said the rebels were demanding international mediation.
She said a former governor from the rebels’ stronghold of Sulu province tried to talk to the gunmen on Tuesday, but “they refuse to listen to anybody locally.”
“They say that it’s an international problem, and no less than the international community, the United Nation, should come in,” she told television network ABS-CBN.
The fighting continued as a rival Muslim guerrilla group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), held talks with the government aimed at ending a rebellion that has claimed 150,000 lives in the south.
The two sides issued a joint statement at the venue of the talks in Malaysia denouncing the MNLF attack.
“Their actions intend to derail the (peace) process using violence and disinformation to spread fear and chaos,” the statement 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, as well as the post-conflict demobilisation of the group.
About 3km away from the fighting, 13,000 people were taking refuge in the Zamboanga stadium.
Interior Secretary Mar Roxas 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 told a news conference.
Officials said their efforts were made more difficult because the rebels were hiding among the civilian residents, and because they had failed so far to reach MNLF founder Nur Misuari.
A similar deadly siege on Zamboanga in 2001 led to his imprisonment until 2008, when all charges against him were dropped. — AFP
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