Clashes between government forces and Muslim rebels in southern Philippines spread to the island of Basilan on Thursday, following a four-day hostage standoff that has virtually paralyzed the coastal city of Zamboanga.
Five people were reported missing and two wounded in a predominantly Christian neighborhood of Lamitan, Basilan, adding to the ten confirmed casualties and 24 wounded in Zamboanga City.
The rebels have now called for a U.N.-brokered end to the fighting, according to Zamboanga City mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco.
Close to 17,000 residents of Zamboanga have sought refuge in schools and at a seaside stadium, as intermittent gunfire continues to rip through several downtown neighborhoods. Zainudin S. Malang, executive director of the independent monitoring organization Mindanao Human Rights Action Center, estimates that at least another three thousand civilians are trapped behind the frontline.
“The food situation is getting desperate,” says Malang, who added that a humanitarian corridor was now necessary for supplies to be delivered.
The clashes started early Monday morning, when boats carrying as many as 400 members of the insurgent group Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) started exchanging mortar fire with a navy vessel. MNLF spokespersons claim that their members were going to stage a peaceful demonstration in Zamboanga, but Steven Rood, Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines, is one of many observers who remains doubtful.
“Judging by the personnel in those boats, it is utterly unthinkable that this was meant as a peaceful rally,” Rood says.
Fighting for an independent, Muslim nation in southern Philippines, the MNLF struck a peace accord with the government in 1996. Since then, however, the splinter group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has gained the upper hand, and is currently carrying out a new round of peace talks with the government. According to Rood, MNLF-leader Nur Misuari considers this new peace process illegal.
“Misuari feels marginalized,” Rood says, “but what he is striving for, to go back to year zero, is totally unrealistic”.
The Philippine government has stated that the ongoing clashes in Zamboanga and Basilan will not derail the peace process with MILF and that the MNLF will play a role in the discussions. Defusing the ongoing battles may prove a delicate process, though.
Previously, the MNLF has been involved in hostage crises from which they have been allowed to walk away. But the current standoff in Zamboanga, with at least four civilian casualties, is the most severe carried out by the group since 1996. “There will be demands for accountability,” says Rood, “but the negotiations will be very tough.”