The Philippine city of Zamboanga has recently become a staging ground for a standoff between the army and rebels. Experts say the fighting is an attempt to derail talks aimed at ending a decades-long Muslim insurgency.
Muslim rebels have been fighting for an independent or autonomous homeland in the south of the mainly Catholic Philippines since the 1970s. According to experts, the conflict, which has claimed the lives of an estimated 150,000 people so far, originated in the wake of what was known as the 1968 Jabidah Massacre of between 60 and 100 Muslim military recruits.
In response, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was founded in 1971 by Nur Misuari, a former political science lecturer at the University of the Philippines, in an effort to establish an independent Moro nation. "The rebel group wanted self-rule and they fought the government hard for it," said Carlos Conde, the Philippines researcher for Human Rights Watch's Asia division.
However, differences among rebel leaders led to the formation of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 1984, a splinter group originally seeking to create a separate Islamic state in the southern Philippines. But since the MILF initially refused to participate in peace talks, the then government of President Fidel Ramos engaged instead in negotiations with the MNLF, resulting in a peace treaty in 1996.
The deal sought to increase the powers of self-rule for the South's Muslim minority and led to Misuari being elected regional governor of the pre-existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
But the MNLF leader objected that Manila had failed to increase the powers granted to the ARMM, and unrest followed again. Misuari was ultimately removed from office five years later, after even some of his own cadres had revolted against him. He was later arrested, but eventually released in 2008.
In the meantime, the Philippine government began peace negotiations with the rival MILF, which is believed to have overtaken the MNLF as the largest Muslim rebel group in the country. According to Steven Rood, Philippines expert at the Asia Foundation, the MILF is now close to signing a peace deal with Manila, which would sideline the MNLF. The potential agreement includes a new autonomous government entity, called the "Bangsamoro" which is set to replace the ARMM by 2016.
An unfolding humanitarian crisis
Experts argue that the latest fighting which broke out on September 9 between Muslim insurgents and government forces in the port city of Zamboanga, a major southern trading hub, is an expression of how outraged some members of MNLF are with the way the government has dealt with the 1996 peace deal.
"This attack is the last stand of a rather isolated group within the MNLF that has been marginalized politically by the competing factions, the MILF and the Philippines government," said Peter Kreuzer, senior fellow at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt.
The siege of the country's sixth largest city began some four weeks after Misuari once again declared "independence" for the Muslim regions. According to the United Nations, the situation in Zamboanga City has become a humanitarian crisis, as tens of thousands of people remain forcibly displaced.
The standoff has left about 132 people dead, 158,000 affected and over 10,000 homes destroyed. About 109,000 are reported to be displaced in Zamboanga and almost 19,000 in neighboring Basilan province.Some 200 civilians were also taken hostage by the Muslim rebels, but were later released as troops gained ground.
"We are increasingly alarmed by the situation and the growing needs of people caught up with violence," the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in the Philippines, Luiza Carvalho, said in a statement. "We are particularly concerned for the most vulnerable, especially the well-being of women and children."
It remains unclear, however, who exactly ordered the latest attack. Misuari reportedly denied any involvement in the attack, telling government officials that the assault had been led by a breakaway faction under the command of Habier Malik, a top MNLF lieutenant.
'A formidable challenge'
Although the rebels have prevented a full-blown assault by hiding in residential neighborhoods and holding residents hostage, analysts expect the present standoff to peter out soon with government forces driving the remnants of the guerrilla force out of the city and adjacent territories.
Experts also believe the latest incident will not affect the ongoing peace talks between the government and the MILF. "Both sides have a desire to bring forth a comprehensive agreement in the next few weeks and there are many in the international community encouraging this outcome," said Rood.
However, the recent violence has raised fears of a growing insurgent threat in the region. Conde believes that if the MNLF is not defeated in this crisis, this will end up with the rebels forming alliances with other rebel groups, such as the Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, which broke away from the MILF just recently.
"Combined, they will present a formidable challenge to the Philippines' central government," Conde told DW.