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MNLF rebels hold Philippine forces at bay

Filipino rebels have held scores of hostages as human shields in a two-day standoff with government forces. Since Monday, fighting has virtually shut down a southern port city.

Troops have surrounded 200 Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) guerrillas and their roughly 180 hostages in four coastal villages near Zamboanga since the fighting began Monday. The conflict has displaced about 1,500 residents of the mainly Muslim districts near the city, including women and children forced to spend the night sleeping on the floor of crowded gyms after fleeing. At least eight combatants have been killed and 24 wounded.

"The primary mission of the government now is clear: do everything possible to convince the armed MNLF group to free all the captive residents they are using as a 'human shield' against military and police operations," Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said. He added that government forces would now focus on "saving as many lives as possible."

The MNLF's 42-year rebellion has claimed 150,000 lives. The group signed an accord with the government in 1996, but retained its weapons and has accused officials of reneging on promises of an autonomous region for Muslims in the Mindanao region of the largely Catholic nation. Last month, the MNLF issued new threats to secede by establishing its own republic.

Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said government forces discovered in advance a planned attack in Zamboanga - a city of around 800,000 - and positioned themselves offensively to deter that. Navy spokesman Lieutenant-Commander Gregory Fabic said commandos had killed seven rebels as they marched into the city, though the sea battle also led to the death of one soldier.

President Benigno Aquino III said his government would make hostage safety a top priority. He has deployed top Cabinet officials and his military chief of staff to oversee the situation

MNLF vs. MILF

MNLF rebels have felt excluded after the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which split in 1978, successfully engaged the government in talks brokered by Malaysia. Monday's attack came as the government prepared to resume negotiations Tuesday.

"We condemn acts of violence perpetrated by spoilers out to derail the people's journey to a just and lasting peace," said presidential adviser Teresita Deles, who has helped to oversee negotiations with the MILF. "How can you demand to hoist your flag in the name of peace while brazenly bearing arms and hurting innocent civilians?" Deles added.

The MNLF rebels have given no indication as to whether they would engage in talks or what they intend to do next.

"Our forces will stay where they are," MNLF spokesman Emmanuel Fontanilla told DZMM radio "They are on a defensive posture."

The 11,000-strong MILF has made substantial progress toward a new autonomy deal for Muslims in the peace talks with the government. The latest round of those talks resumed Tuesday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

mkg/ph (Reuters, AFP, AP)

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