Philippine officials were trying to negotiate a surrender of Muslim rebels who were holding more than 100 civilians hostage, as President Benigno Aquino III warned that his government would not hesitate to use force to end the five-day standoff.
On Friday Aquino visited troops and some of the 15,000 displaced people in southern Zamboanga city, where about 200 fighters from a Muslim rebel faction stormed into several coastal communities earlier this week and took residents hostage.
“We’re not setting a deadline but we have decisive points. If they harmed hostages, resorted to arson and crossed other lines that should not be crossed, our security forces have instructions on what to do,” he told reporters.
At least 22 people have been killed and 52 wounded in five days of fighting, while 19 of the gunmen have surrendered or been captured, military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala told AFP news agency.
Fighting once again broke out in Santa Catalina village on Friday, and ABS-CBN TV reported that voices presumably of hostages were heard shouting “cease fire, cease fire!” One government soldier was reported wounded.
Zagala said that lines of communication with the rebels remain open and they are still refusing to surrender.
“We’re negotiating,” Zagala said, refusing to elaborate further.
Shaky peace deal
The crisis began on Monday when Moro National Liberation Front rebels, who have been overshadowed by a rival group in talks with the government for a new minority Muslim autonomy deal, clashed with troops who had foiled their plan to march through Zamboanga city and hoist their flag at city hall.
The rebel leader, Nur Misuari, signed a peace deal in 1996, but the rebels did not lay down their arms and later accused the government of reneging on a promise to develop long-neglected Muslim regions in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation.
The government says Misuari kept on stalling and making new demands.
Misuari alleges the government is violating the terms of a 1996 peace treaty by negotiating a separate peace deal with a rival faction, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The MILF is in the final stages of peace talks with Manila and is expected to take over an expanded autonomous Muslim region in the south by 2016.
The deal seeks to end violence that has killed some 150,000 people in the south since the 1970s.