ZAMBOANGA, Philippines – Philippine troops battled Muslim rebels on two fronts Thursday, after the insurgents attacked a second town near the southern port where they are holding scores of residents hostage in a standoff with government forces.
The rebels attacked predominantly Christian outskirts of Lamitan town in Basilan province on Thursday morning, said Vice Mayor Roderick Furigay. Five people were missing and two wounded, he said.
A regional governor, Mujiv Hataman, said that the assault was repulsed. Authorities said earlier they were monitoring the movement of rebel forces in that area and Hataman said that residents had already evacuated Wednesday.
Basilan island province is a boat ride away from Zamboanga city, where Moro National Liberation Front fighters have been holding their hostage since Monday, when government troops repulsed their attempt to erect a rebel flag at city hall.
The three-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 15,000 villagers have fled from the fighting and took shelter at a grandstand in a seaside sports complex and schools. Troops were under orders to prevent the rebels from straying beyond the communities they have seized or getting reinforcements, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said.
The rebels signed a peace deal in 1996, but their faction leader accuses the government of reneging on a promise to develop the impoverished, restive region. The rebel leader, Nur Misuari, has isolated himself and set out on a collision course with the government when he voiced opposition to the ongoing peace talks between the Philippines and the currently-dominant rebel movement, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The talks have steadily progressed toward a new and potentially larger Muslim autonomy deal, but Misuari felt left out. Last month, his group issued new threats to secede by establishing its own republic.
At least nine combatants and villagers have been killed since the standoff in Zamboanga 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.
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.
A gunbattle erupted at rebel-held Santa Catalina village on Wednesday, 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."
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.
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez and Teresa Cerojano in Manila contributed to this report.