Philippine rebels use 'human shields' in standoff with troops
By Teodoro Aljibe, AFPZAMBOANGA, Philippines--Muslim militants used 180 residents as “human shields” yesterday, Philippine officials said, as they traded gunfire with troops amid burning houses during a standoff after a deadly attack on a southern city.
September 11, 2013, 12:11 am TWN
Machine gun fire rang out in the deserted streets of Zamboanga as marines targeted fighters from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) who stormed the city Monday intent on derailing peace talks.
Several houses were ablaze but rebel sniper fire prevented fire trucks from nearing the scene.
“We are scared. We just want this to end as soon as possible so we can get on with our lives,” security technician Ed Laguatan told AFP as he cowered inside his house amid the barrage of gunfire.
“We can see them (the rebels) just next door ... It looks like they are ready to die fighting.”
The fighting began before dawn Monday as rebels stormed the city of one million people from nearby towns and islands, killing four and injuring 14.
Naval commandos also killed seven MNLF members at sea on the same day as they tried to enter the city, Philippine Navy spokesman Lieutenant-Commander Gregory Fabic told AFP yesterday.
Military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala said 180 MNLF gunmen armed with rifles and mortars were now surrounded by about 1,500 elite troops backed by a smaller number of police.
But MNLF spokesman Emmanuel Fontanilla told DZMM radio that the rebels were prepared to dig in.
“Our forces will stay where they are. They are on a defensive posture,” he said.
President Benigno Aquino refused to set a deadline for resolving the crisis.
“We can't be giving deadlines when what we want to ensure is that no more civilians are affected, hurt or killed,” he told reporters in Manila.
Interior Secretary Mar Roxas told a news conference that authorities were trying to negotiate with the gunmen.
About 180 residents were being used as “human shields” in six districts where the rebels were holed up surrounded by security forces, he said.
The government had described the people as “hostages,” but Roxas said it appeared most were free to leave if they wished.
“It appears that what happened is not hostage-taking but more of them being turned into human shields by the MNLF forces who entered their communities. People are free to get in and out of there, they are not bound, they are not detained,” he said.
“Whether they are hostages or not is still being validated,” he added.