At least 25 people have been killed during fighting in the southern Philippines between government troops and supporters of a rebellious governor of the Muslim autonomous region. The rebels have since released some of the hostages and negotiations have begun.
The fighting erupted before dawn Tuesday on the outskirts of Zamboanga, one thousand kilometers south of Manila. Military forces attacked a government compound occupied by supporters of the governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), Nur Misuari.
The rebels took scores of civilian hostages and threatened to kill them unless they were allowed to leave the city. Terrified residents fled their homes. Others pleaded for a ceasefire to protect family members seized by the rebels.
The rebels were told to leave the compound last week, after Misuari supporters clashed with government troops on neighboring Jolo island, killing more than 100 people.
The government accuses Mr. Misuari of instigating the violence to disrupt Monday's elections for a new governor, and has charged him with rebellion. Mr. Misuari was arrested in neighboring Malaysia Saturday after fleeing the country by boat. He faces deportation.
Philippines National Security Advisor Roilo Golez told VOA that the Philippine government views the incident as an act of desperation by the governor. "We see this as the last gasps of a dying group of Misuari," he said. "Misuari is now jailed in Malaysia and it is possible that he might be facing serious charges there, not to mention the serious charges he will be facing here in the Philippines."
Malaysian officials say Mr. Misuari entered their country illegally. Mr. Golez said the Philippine government is allowing the Malaysian government to complete its own investigation before proceeding with its own charges against Mr. Misuari. If convicted of rebellion, he could face up to 20 years in prison.
Meanwhile, election officials in the autonomous region have begun counting the results of Monday's election and say the results are expected in a few days. Turn-out was moderate but largely peaceful as more than one million eligible voters chose a new governor, vice-governor and 24-member regional council.
Mr. Misuari rejected the election saying it violated the peace agreement he signed with the government five years ago. As part of the accord, fighters of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) laid down their arms in exchange for regional autonomy. The accord created the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao with Mr. Misuari as governor.
However, Governor Misuari came under criticism for his performance and was ousted last April as chairman of the MNLF.