— The southern Philippine city Zamboanga is into the second day of a hostage crisis. The government says at least 168 people are being held captive as the military and a Muslim rebel group faction continue a standoff.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines say thousands of military and police are spread out around Zamboanga in the southern island of Mindanao to try to keep a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front from entering the city.
At a news briefing in Manila, President Benigno Aquino said the forces today are “overwhelming” and they include elite units.
“Our priority, of course, is all of the civilians that could get dragged into the conflict. Our instructions since yesterday have been to make sure everyone is safe,” said Aquino.
Officials say the group of more than 200 fighters led by an MNLF commander had intended to raise a separatist flag in Zamboanga City hall. But the military learned about their plan and intercepted them. The two sides clashed, killing at least four people and wounding 21 others. When the fighters were unable to penetrate the city, the government says they took hostages using them as human shields.
Government troopers arrive to reinforce their comrades after an army officer was killed in the ongoing operation against Muslim rebels, Zamboanga, Philippines, Sept. 19, 2013.
Evacuees line up to receive food as fighting between government forces and Muslim rebels continued, Zamboanga, Philippines, Sept. 19, 2013.
Residents line up for a shower in a stadium turned into an evacuation center in Zamboanga, Philippines, Sept. 18, 2013.
Villagers who fled the fighting between government forces and Muslim rebels rest in their tents along a boulevard in Zamboanga, Philippines, Sept. 18, 2013.
Boats of villagers fleeing the fighting between government forces and Muslim rebels crowd a port in Zamboanga, Philippines, Sept. 18, 2013.
Government troops fire mortars during renewed fighting between government forces and Muslim rebels, who have taken scores of hostages, in Zamboanga city in the southern Philippines, Sept. 16, 2013.
Government troops prepare an assault on Muslim rebels in Zamboanga, Philippines, Sept. 13, 2013.
Government soldiers wearing ammunition prepare to attack Muslim rebels in Zamboanga, Philippines, Sept. 13, 2013.
Government troopers prepare for an assault on Muslim rebels in Zamboanga, Philippines, Sept. 13, 2013.
Firemen rush to put out a fire that razed several homes as government troopers continue their assault on Muslim rebels in Zamboanga, Philippines, Sept. 12, 2013.
A man throws water into a burning house in Zamboanga, Philippines, Sept. 12, 2013.
Residents believed to be hostages wave white cloths as they shout at troops to stop their operation in the continuing standoff with Muslim rebels, Zamboanga, Philippines, Sept.11, 2013.
Residents who abandoned their homes carry their belongings during a standoff in Zamboanga, Philippines, Sept. 10, 2013.
A military spokesman says there were small skirmishes Tuesday morning with no reported deaths.
Rommel Banlaoi heads the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research. He says both sides “overreacted.”
“The military thought there were going to be armed intrusions and the MNLF thought there were going to be armed offensives against them,” Banlaoi said.
Banlaoi said last week the MNLF held a peace rally in Davao City, also in Mindanao, to garner support for an independent republic.He said the group’s presence in the Zamboanga area was supposed to be similar.
Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said at a news conference Tuesday that four children and one adult were released from among the hostages.
School closures went into effect and flights to and from Zamboanga have been canceled. Businesses also closed. But on Tuesday, Zamboanga Mayor Isabelle Climaco appealed to grocers and pharmacies to remain open.
Roxas says vital installations such as hospitals, power and water treatment plants have been secured and that the situation is slowly getting back to normal.
But MNLF leader Nur Misuari has remained elusive throughout this crisis. The MNLF signed a peace agreement with the government in 1996, but the group has contended the government did not hold to its terms. President Aquino says the government does not yet have any evidence to file a case against Misuari.
The Philippines is in the final stages of working out a peace accord with the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The MILF says the incident in Zamboanga is a tactic aimed at derailing those peace efforts.