Gunmen have killed several people and taken at least 20 hostages in the southern Philippines in a bid to derail peace talks. A 42-year rebellion in the region has killed 150,000 people.
Troops surrounded the southern port city of Zamboanga after between 200 and 300 Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) gunmen entered six nearby coastal villages before dawn, military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala said. Loud explosions rang around the former colonial Spanish port of nearly 1 million people.
"They were trying to march on the city hall and we cannot allow that," Zagala told a news conference in Manila, adding that forces have so far arrested two gunmen.
Zamboanga mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco-Salazar said the gunmen have killed at least one soldier, one police officer and four civilians, and more than 1,400 people have fled their homes. The military and police have also reported at least 20 people held hostage.
"The authorities are responding to the situation in a manner that will reduce the risk to innocent civilians and restore peace and order to Zamboanga City at the soonest possible time," Edwin Lacierda, a spokesman for President Benigno Aquino, said in a statement.
'Surround and secure'
The government and MNLF offshoot Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) hope to resume talks aimed at crafting a political settlement to be signed before Aquino leaves office in 2016. After a preliminary peace deal was signed last year, the remaining negotiations aim to flesh out the power-sharing terms between the national government and the MILF, expected to head a new autonomous government, and the disarmament of its 12,000 guerrillas.
The MNLF signed a peace deal in 1996, dropping its bid for independence and settling for autonomy, although its followers had not totally disarmed. MNLF leader Nur Misuari has, however, renewed his call for an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines and told his forces to "surround and secure all military, police and all other installations, airports, seaports and all other vital government and private institutions."
Misuari has attacked Zamboanga in the past as well. In 2001, he and his followers took dozens of hostages and left many more dead in Zamboanga and in nearby Jolo island, his home base. The MNLF later freed all the hostages after several days, in exchange for free passage out of the city as Misuari fled to Malaysia, where he was arrested and deported.
After holding Misuari in a police camp near the capital, Manila, the government dropped all charges against him in 2008.
mkg/tj (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)