ZAMBOANGA CITY – Fresh skirmishes erupted on Wednesday between security and rebel forces as fighting spread in the city.
Police pursued and fired on Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels who managed to sneak into a neighborhood near Ciudad Medical along Mayor Vitaliano Agan Avenue, a kilometer from the village of Santa Catalina where troops also assaulted rebel positions.
The fighting triggered an exodus of civilians. Some 13,000 residents have fled since the MNLF fighters slipped into the city.
Rebels have fired rocket-propelled grenades and mortar rounds at government positions. Two projectiles hit the open-air Catholic shrine Fort Pilar where soldiers were deployed.
Sporadic clashes were reported near downtown Zamboanga where the heavily guarded City Hall is located. Rebels torched civilian houses in Santa Barbara to delay the advancing soldiers.
Several people have been shot and wounded. One pro-government militia was killed when soldiers attacked him after mistaking for an MNLF fighter.
The MNLF forces, who are followers of Nur Misuari, herded more than 100 people and used them as a shield, but Mayor Maria Isabelle Salazar said the MNLF freed nine hostages, including four children, in exchange for food.
Salazar said negotiations were continuing for the release of the remaining hostages.
“We call on the OPAPP to address the demand and claims of the MNLF,” Salazar said, referring to Secretary Teresita Deles, President Benigno Aquino’s peace adviser.
Misuari has accused Manila of reneging on the 1996 peace deal it signed with the MNLF.
Police said 4,000 villagers who fled Barangay Mampang were brought by military trucks to the Joaquin Enriquez Memorial Sports Complex in San Jose village where thousands have been encamped since Monday.
Many villagers were pleading the truck drivers not to leave them behind fearing they would be held hostage by rebels.
Army soldiers backed by armor set up roadblocks in Mampang to prevent the rebels from getting near downtown Zamboanga. One army intelligence member said a group of rebels slipped out of the village before sundown, but there were more hiding in the neighborhood.
The fighting has shut down stores and other businesses in the city. Salazar has declared an 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew.