ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AFP) – Philippine President Benigno Aquino Friday visited the southern city of Zamboanga where government troops are battling followers of a Muslim rebel leader opposed to peace talks.
The presidential palace declined to give details of Aquino's trip, which came on the fifth day of an incursion by up to 180 Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) guerrillas concentrated in six coastal areas.
"We will secure him wherever he wants to go," military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala told AFP, downplaying potential threats to Aquino's safety.
"He has arrived there. He flew to Zamboanga," Aquino spokeswoman Abigail Valte said in a statement.
Aquino was meeting with city officials, an AFP reporter said. There was no immediate word on whether he would visit the conflict areas.
At least 15 people have been killed, and nearly 200 Zamboanga residents are being used as human shields by the gunmen, who have also set parts of the six coastal districts on fire.
Zagala said government forces had moved into those areas to prevent more destruction, but would not say how long he expected the fighting to last.
Heavily armed troops Friday entered a school and a mosque vacated by MNLF fighters, an AFP photographer said.
The corpses of at least two suspected rebels were later brought out by the troops.
Military spokesman Brigadier General Domingo Tutaan said an estimated 183 civilians were still being held hostage as human shields by the armed followers of MNLF founder Nur Misuari.
"We envision that there will be a peaceful result to this with the armed men laying down their arms and releasing the civilians," he told AFP.
The crisis began when the MNLF fighters tried to march on the Zamboanga city hall before dawn Monday, clashing with government forces.
Since then, the rebels have been pinned down in a few largely Muslim communities in Zamboanga, setting fire to houses while firing at troops to keep them at bay.
Misuari spoke to Zamboanga City mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco Salazar late Wednesday but only said his men had a "free hand" in deciding their fate, according to the mayor.
There are fears that the fighting may spread after Muslim gunmen attacked army positions on nearby Basilan island, killing a pro-government militiaman and wounding four members of the government forces and a civilian on Thursday.
Fresh fighting broke out in Basilan on Friday, local officials said, but the military could not yet give details.
Misuari alleges the government is violating the terms of a 1996 peace treaty 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 a Muslim insurgency that has killed some 150,000 people in the south since the 1970s.