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Philippine rebels lay siege to second town in Basilan province

A Muslim separatist group has laid siege to a town on the Filipino island of Basilan, the second it has attacked since fighting began four days ago. Meanwhile, clashes raged on in the major port city of Zamboanga.

Members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) - the rebel group which launched an attack earlier this week on Zamboanga City over a broken peace deal with the government - attacked a town in Basilan province on Thursday, widening the armed conflict with the Filipino military to two fronts.

Several people, including militant soldiers, were wounded in the clashes, according to local officials.

"We would like to believe this is just part of their diversionary tactics," regional military spokesman Colonel Rodrigo Gregorio told the Associated Press news agency.

Regional governor Mujiv Hataman told the news agency AFP that residents had already been evacuated.

Basilan Island lies less than 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) south of Zamboanga City, located on the next island.

Zamboanga clashes

Fighting between MNLF fighters and Philippine security forces in Zamboanga City entered its fourth day on Thursday, with no sign of stopping.

Militants have infiltrated several neighborhoods in the city of nearly one million residents, causing over 13,000 people to abandon their homes and flee to schools and a local sports stadium.

Some 180 residents have been caught in a standoff between the two sides. Reports indicate the MNLF has been using them as "human shields," hindering Filipino security forces in attempts to attack rebels.

Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco said on Wednesday the crisis had become "an international problem" because the MNLF has refused to negotiate with local officials.

The MNLF's 42-year rebellion has claimed at least 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 to establish an autonomous region for Muslims in the Mindanao region of the largely Catholic nation.

Last month, the founder of the MNLF, Nur Misuari, urged members to attack government buildings in a call for independence for the Muslim faction.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a more prominent Muslim group seeking independence, has had more success negotiating with the government. Talks that have been taking place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia resumed on Tuesday.

kms/tj (AP, AFP, Reuters)