MANILA, Philippines – About 300 Muslim rebels were in a hostage standoff Monday with government troops after a rampage through coastal communities in the southern Philippines left at least eight people dead, officials said.
The fighting happened after the troops backed by tanks blocked Moro National Liberation Front guerrillas — armed by assault rifles — from marching into Zamboanga city to raise their flag at city hall, military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said.
He said the rebels were boxed into a Muslim coastal slum called Rio Hondo and were refusing to negotiate with security forces.
Zamboanga Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco said sporadic gunbattles had killed a navy special forces member, a policeman and four civilians, while 24 civilians, rebels and soldiers were wounded. The military said at least two guerrillas were killed.
The military and police said 20 residents were being held hostage by rebels in a village near Rio Hondo.
"Everything is being done to solve the crisis as soon as possible with minimal damage to lives and properties," Climaco said.
Zagala said the rebels planned to march into Zamboanga, a bustling port city of nearly 1 million people, and hoist their flag at city hall but government forces discovered the plan three days ago and took defensive positions.
"We cannot allow another armed force to march around our cities. That is unacceptable," he said.
TV footage showed troops and police forces in battle gear taking cover behind buildings as residents fled with bags of clothes.
The turbulence is the latest flare-up of Muslim unrest that has plagued the country's poverty-stricken Mindanao region on and off for decades. It also shatters years of relative calm in Zamboanga city, a predominantly Christian region 860 kilometers (540 miles) south of Manila.
The Moro group signed a 1996 peace accord with the government, but hundreds of its fighters held on to their arms, and have accused officials of reneging on a promise to develop an autonomous region for minority Muslims in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines.
The group later split into factions and faded in the background as its largest breakaway guerrilla bloc, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, gained strength and continued fighting.
The 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front has engaged the Philippine government in Malaysian-brokered peace talks, which have progressed recently toward a new Muslim autonomy deal. But a Moro National Liberation Front guerrilla faction led by Nur Misuari felt left out and has issued new threats.
The trouble in Zamboanga city began late Sunday when policemen arrested five Moro National Liberation Front guerrillas who were wearing combat camouflage uniforms and carrying pistols in Rio Hondo, the military said.
Then a navy patrol spotted a large boat and eight smaller vessels carrying dozens of armed guerrillas off Rio Hondo, sparking a gunbattle at sea that killed a member of the navy special forces and wounded six others, Zagala said.
The clash spilled into Rio Hondo, where bursts of gunfire forced hundreds of residents to flee.
Reinforcement troops and police were deployed to cut off the guerrillas.