ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine government on Thursday warned Muslim rebels who have been holding more than 100 people hostage in a southern port city to peacefully end the four-day standoff "at the soonest possible time," saying its forces are ready to demonstrate the state's resolve.
It was the toughest talk by President Benigno Aquino III's administration since Moro National Liberation Front guerrillas occupied coastal communities and took scores of residents hostage in Zamboanga city. Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said any attempts by other groups to sow trouble would be crushed, citing the army's defeat of an extremist group's attempt to set a nearby village and wharf on fire.
"While the government is exhausting all avenues for a peaceful resolution to the situation, let it be clear to those defying us that they should not entertain the illusion that the state will hesitate to use its forces," Lacierda said.
"It is time for you to cooperate to resolve this situation peacefully at the soonest possible time," he said. The most serious security crisis to hit Aquino's administration began Monday when about 200 armed Moro rebels, who have been overshadowed by a rival group in talks with the government for a new Muslim autonomy deal, clashed with government troops who had foiled their plan to march through Zamboanga city and hoist their flag at city hall.
They then barged into five coastal villages and seized scores of residents to use as human shields as hundreds of elite army troops and police, backed by tanks, helicopters and navy gunboats, surrounded them.
Government forces engaged the rebels in a daylong exchange of gunfire Thursday in Santa Catalina village, where the insurgents were holding some of their hostages. The fierce clash ignited a blaze that gutted about 30 houses. Two Huey helicopters hovered as dark smoke billowed from the rebel-held coastal community.
As the fighting raged in Zamboanga, a separate group of about 150 insurgents led by the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf attempted to set fire to a village and a wharf on the rural outskirts of predominantly Christian Lamitan city on nearby Basilan island. The attack was repulsed by government forces in an hour-long clash that left a government militiaman and an unspecified number of militants dead, and two soldiers wounded, army Col. Carlito Galvez said.
Another government militiaman was missing and troops were pursuing the attackers, Galvez said. He said the Abu Sayyaf, a small but violent group, was trying to take advantage of the hostage standoff in Zamboanga "to improve its influence and mass base support."
Thousands of army troops and police had been on full alert this week to thwart plans by the Abu Sayyaf to sow trouble in Basilan as the standoff drags on in Zamboanga, about an hour away by boat, Galvez said.
Regional Gov. Mujiv Hataman said authorities had discovered the planned assault in Basilan, allowing them to evacuate residents as early as Wednesday. The four-day crisis has virtually paralyzed Zamboanga, a lively trading city of nearly a million people, with most flights and ferry services suspended. Communities near the clashes resembled a war zone, with armored troop carriers lining streets, troops massing at a school and snipers taking positions atop buildings pockmarked with bullet holes.
More than 15,000 villagers have fled the fighting. The Moro rebels signed a peace deal in 1996, but did not lay down their arms and later accused the government of reneging on a promise to develop long-neglected Muslim regions. They have felt left out as government talks with a rival insurgent group have steadily progressed toward a new Muslim autonomy deal.
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez, Teresa Cerojano and Hrvoje Hranjski in Manila contributed to this report.