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Philippine rebels holding hostages demand international mediation as firefights rage on

Muslim rebels holding scores of hostages in the southern Philippines are demanding international mediation, an official said Wednesday, as sporadic exchanges of gunfire with government troops broke out, wounding two people and igniting fire on the third day of the standoff.

The Moro National Liberation Front rebels, enraged by a broken peace deal with the government, have been holding the civilian hostages as human shields since Monday in four coastal communities in the port city of Zamboanga. Troops backed by tanks, assault helicopters and navy gunboats have surrounded the estimated 200 rebels and their dozens of hostages.

At least nine combatants and villagers have been killed since the standoff began, officials said.

President Benigno Aquino III has sent top Cabinet officials and his military chief of staff to oversee the security crisis in the country's restive south, the scene of decades-long Muslim unrest in this predominantly Roman Catholic nation. Top priority was the safety of the hostages and residents of the city, he said.

In Zamboanga city's Canelar village, police wounded two suspected rebels in a mid-afternoon clash, officials said. Almost simultaneously, the rebels opened fire on the troops in another village called Sta. Barbara, where the rebels have been holding some of their hostages, prompting marines and elite army forces to retaliate, military spokesman Brig. Gen. Domingo Tutaan said.

The fierce exchange of gunfire set on fire Sta. Barbara's village hall near a mosque compound that troops managed to retake, witnesses said.

A gunbattle also erupted at rebel-held Sta. Catalina village, where an AP photographer saw from a distance about 30 villagers, believed to be hostages, who waved white cloths in front of a house and yelled, "Don't fire, don't fire."

The two-day crisis has virtually paralyzed Zamboanga, a lively trading city of nearly a million people, with most flights and ferry services suspended. Communities near the clashes resembled a war zone, with armored troop carriers lining streets, troops massing at a school and snipers taking positions atop buildings. A mosque and its minaret were pockmarked with bullet holes.

Nearly 10,000 villagers have fled from the fighting and took shelter at a sports complex. Troops were under orders to prevent the rebels from straying beyond the communities they have seized or getting reinforcements, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said.

Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco said the rebels were demanding international mediation, adding that the rebels have so far refused to talk with provincial officials.

"They say that it's an international problem, and no less than the international community, the U.N., should come in," she told ABS-CBN TV network. Shots rang out from a distance as she spoke at city hall.

The MNLF rebel group signed a peace accord with the government in 1996, but hundreds of its fighters held on to their arms, split into factions and faded in the background. A major faction led by Nur Misuari has accused officials of reneging on a promise to develop an autonomous region for minority Muslims in the southern Mindanao region.

Misuari's group felt left out in ongoing peace talks brokered by Malaysia between Aquino's administration and the currently-dominant Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which have steadily progressed toward a new and potentially larger Muslim autonomy deal.

Last month, Misuari's group issued new threats to secede by establishing its own republic.

Misuari has not appeared in public or issued any statement since his followers barged into Zamboanga city's coast early Monday and clashed with soldiers and police.

Misuari's armed followers, who arrived on board motorboats from outlying islands, had planned to march into Zamboanga and hoist their flag at city hall, but government forces discovered the plan. The ensuing clashes sparked the hostage crisis and standoff, the military said.

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Associated Press writers Jim Gomez and Teresa Cerojano in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.