Zamboanga (AsiaNews) - Clashes in the Zamboanga this morning between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Filipino army have left people dead, wounded and a dozens of hostages. Fr Giulio Mariani, a PIME missionary at the in Euntes Center, confirmed the incident. "We are fine, but do not go out of our centre. The situation is still very tense and confused," he told AsiaNews.
About 100 Islamic fighters arrived by sea from Mindanao, landing on the coast of Zamboanga in the early hours of Monday morning. They eventually engaged government troops near Rio Hondo.
"It was not difficult for the rebels to arrive in Zamboanga without being stopped by the army," said Fr Mariani. "The area of Rio Hondo is mostly Muslim, and it is likely that the weapons were already hidden in homes before the guerrillas landed."
Islamist insurgents in the MNLF, an Islamic separatist group established in the late 1960s, call for independence from Manila and the creation of a Muslim country in the southern island of Mindanao, which is rich in mineral resources.
Despite a peace treaty signed in 1996, hostilities between rebels and central authorities still flare up from time to time in the south of the country, where separatists have split up in various groups.
One group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) recently signed a draft peace deal with the government in Kuala Lumpur, but the truce has been met with scepticism by both parties and is likely to fade as a result of today's attacks.
According to unconfirmed sources, the group of rebels, with about 30 hostages, is on its way to Zamboanga City Hall to replace the Filipino flag with theirs.
"The main target by the MNLF in encroaching Zamboanga City is to raise their banner of independence at City Hall," Mayor Isabelle Climaco-Salazar said.
Around 800 troops had been deployed to secure the city, Armed forces spokesman Lt Col Ramon Zagala said. "We are trying to contain them, so that this will not spread elsewhere," he said about the rebels.
"Today's attack by Islamic guerrillas comes on the day Interior Secretary Mar Roxas visits. This might not be a coincidence," Catholic sources said.