By BosNewsLife Asia Service
MANILA, PHILIPPINES (BosNewsLife)-- About 200 Muslim rebels were holding a pastor and nearly 300 other people hostage on Monday, September 9, in the southern Philippines following fierce clashes with government forces that left at least eight people dead, officials and a Christian aid group said.
The latest fighting, which also injured several Christians, broke out when troops backed by tanks blocked the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels, who fight for an Islamic state in the region, from marching far into Zamboanga city to raise their flag at city hall, military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala told reporters.
Earlier, a Philippine navy patrol clashed with the suspected Muslim rebels aboard several boats off southern Zamboanga city, a major port city, which killed one naval special forces member and wounded six others, military officials said.
Following the sea clash, rebels managed to enter Rio Hondo, a crowded coastal Muslim slum on the outskirts of Zamboanga city.
Armed with assault rifles and grenade launchers they attempted to reach the city center, but were halted by government forces, officials said.
Local media reported that security forces surrounded the nearby villages Sta. Barbara, Sta. Catalina and Kasanyangan to prevent the gunmen from spreading out across the region.
Nearly 300 villagers were effectively held as hostage and trapped in the standoff, authorities said, including a pastor whose name was not revealed amid security concerns.
"More than 800 have fled their homes, including from the busy Rio Hondo area. A local church has been tending to casualties," said World Watch Monitor, the news service of well-informed Open Doors, a Christian advocacy and aid group.,
It shattered recent years of relative calm in Zamboanga city, a heavily Christian region 860 kilometers (540 miles) south of Manila, the capital.
Mayor Isabelle Climaco-Salazar declared a curfew from 8 pm to 5 am Tuesday, September 10, local time while schools and businesses were closed amid concerns of further violence. "The enemy side suffered undetermined casualties as the troops clashed with the rebels in an intermittent firefight," she reportedly said.
Officials claimed the rebel group has been using hostages as human shields as they marched towards the City Hall. Monday's violence was the latest Muslim unrest that has plagued the country's poverty-stricken Mindanao region for years.
The MNLF has been seeking independence for decades, hoping to create an independent Islamic state in the heavily Catholic Asian nation. A ceasefire was agreed in 1996, but some of the group’s affiliates remain active.
"The MNLF has already renounced war but we will act in defense of our communities,” an MNLF official, who declined to be named, was quoted as saying by local media.
He said his fighters would seek a "peaceful strategy used by Kosovo" the former Serbian province that declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
It was not immediately clear what would happen with the pastor and other Christians who were believed to be among the hostages as government forces tried to end the latest stand-off with the Muslim rebels.