MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A Philippine navy patrol clashed early Monday with suspected Muslim rebels aboard several boats off a key southern city, before the rebels stormed a coastal community and took about a dozen hostages, officials said.
Reinforcement troops and police have been deployed to surround the crowded neighborhood of Rio Hondo, which is located near the downtown area of Zamboanga, a bustling trading hub in the south. Regional police chief Juanito Bano said 20 Moro National Liberation Front guerrillas are believed to be holding 10 to 15 people hostage there.
“We’re now containing them,” Bano told DZMM radio. “Hopefully, we can get these civilians and then engage the gunmen properly.”
Officials said 1 navy soldier and 10 navy and police personnel were wounded in the pre-dawn battle while 2 rebels were killed.
U.S. counterterrorism forces who have been providing training to Filipino troops since 2002 are based in a Philippine military camp in a part of Zamboanga city that has so far been unaffected by the skirmishes.
The Moro group signed a 1996 peace accord with the government, but hundreds of its fighters held on to their arms and have since accused officials of reneging on a promise to develop an autonomous region for minority Muslims in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines.
The group later split into factions and faded in the background as its largest breakaway guerrilla bloc, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, gained strength and continued fighting for self-rule for minority Muslims.
The 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front later engaged the Philippine government in Malaysian-brokered peace talks, which have progressed recently toward a new Muslim autonomy deal. Moro National Liberation Front guerrillas led by its commander Nur Misuari felt left out and have issued new threats to secede from their remaining strongholds like southern Jolo island, a few hours by boat from Zamboanga city.
The trouble in Zamboanga city apparently began late Sunday when policemen arrested five Moro National Liberation Front guerrillas who were wearing combat camouflage uniforms and carrying pistols in Rio Hondo, officials said.
Shortly after midnight, a navy patrol spotted a large boat and eight smaller vessels carrying dozens of armed guerrillas off Rio Hondo, sparking a gunbattle at sea that killed a member of the navy special forces and wounded six others, military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said.
The clash spilled into Rio Hondo, where the rebels fled, rousing hundreds of residents with the burst of gunfire and prompting them to flee. At least four policemen were wounded in scattered shootouts in Rio Hondo and outlying areas, police said.
Reinforcement troops and police were later deployed to help track down the guerrillas and secure strategic areas of Zamboanga, a predominantly Christian region about 860 kilometers (540 miles) south of Manila where officials convened a crisis committee to discuss how to deal with the unraveling security crisis.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said the city government has appealed to the national government for help and President Benigno Aquino III is being briefed and receiving updates on the situation.
“We condemn the attack on Zamboanga City in the strongest possible terms,” he said.
Commercial flights to and from the city have been suspended as a safety measure, said Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines spokesman Eric Apolonio.
The clashes shattered years of relative calm in Zamboanga city, which has been hit by bombings and high-profile hostage-takings by Muslim guerrillas in the past.