200 Filipino rebels storm villages, take hostages

By Jim Gomez and Teresa Cerojano ,AP

MANILA — About 200 Muslim rebels were holding nearly 300 people hostage Monday after clashing with government troops and rampaging through coastal communities in the southern Philippines, leaving at least eight people dead, officials said.

The fighting occurred after troops backed by tanks blocked the Moro National Liberation Front guerrillas — armed with assault rifles and grenade launchers — from marching into Zamboanga city, a major port city, to raise their flag at city hall, military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said.

He said the rebels were boxed into a Muslim coastal slum called Rio Hondo and were refusing to negotiate with security forces.

Zamboanga Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco said sporadic gunbattles killed a navy special forces member, a policeman and four civilians, and that 24 civilians, rebels and soldiers were wounded. The military said at least two guerrillas were killed.

“Everything is being done to solve the crisis as soon as possible with minimal damage to lives and properties,” Climaco said.

The military and police initially reported 20 residents were being held hostage by the rebels but Zagala said later Monday that up to 290 people were being held captive in three villages near Rio Hondo based on reports by government forces.

Alberto Sumalpong Jr. said he and his family were awakened by blasts of gunfire and then fled to safety from their village, but he later returned to check on their belongings. “Some villagers returned to check on their houses but ended up also being taken hostage,” he told The Associated Press by telephone.

Zagala said the rebels planned to march into Zamboanga, a bustling port city of nearly 1 million people, and hoist their flag at city hall but government forces discovered the plan three days ago and took defensive positions.

“We cannot allow another armed force to march around our cities. That is unacceptable,” he said.