By BosNewsLife Asia Service with reporting by Correspondent Alastair Wanklyn
ZAMBOANGA CITY (BosNewsLife)-- Hundreds of residents, including many Christians, remained trapped or were held hostage as fighting intensified in the Southern Philippines Saturday, September 14, between government forces and Muslim separatists in suburbs of Zamboanga city.
More than 50 people have died since the siege began Monday, September 9, shattering recent years of relative calm in Zamboanga city, a heavily Christian region 860 kilometers (540 miles) south of Manila, the capital.
There remained concern that rebels were holding hundreds of local residents as human shields. A local church has been involved in tending to at least some of the 70 people who were wounded in the clashes, Christians said.
Yet a Catholic priest caught up in the siege was freed Friday, September 12, leaving behind terrified hostages.
"Whenever the military attacked, the rebels would force us to become their human shield," the priest, Michael Ufana said in comments aired by Vatican Radio. "Then, after the firefight they would lock us up again in detention."
Philippine troops stepped up efforts to try to force rebels from buildings they seized in Zamboanga city, but the insurgents are well armed.
Witnesses said that at one point they fired a mortar at government forces, which wounded several Red Cross workers.
Government officials say those trapped in two schools are running short of food. An estimated 60,000 residents have fled, and hundreds of buildings are now destroyed.
Philippines Benigno Aquino III said in a statement that the "prime objective is to save lives," but he warned his government may use force to end the standoff.
The troubles began Monday, September 9, when some 200 Muslim rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), entered the port city and took hostages.
The attacks by MNLF were seen by observers as an attempt to scupper peace talks between another militant group and the government.
MNLF has been fighting for an Islamic state for Muslim Moro, who comprise the largest non-Christian group in the Philippines, at around 10 percent of a total 97 million Filipinos.
A ceasefire had been due on Saturday, September 14, after telephone talks between Philippine Vice-President Jejomar Binay and the head of a faction of the MNLF, Nur Misuari.
However it remained unclear whether all the fighters answer to that one group with local reports suggesting the force appears to be a coalition of Islamists and independence seekers in this mainly Catholic nation.
The clashes raised questions about the strength of a peace deal agreed last October with the MNLF, to end four decades of conflict that killed 120,000 people and displaced two million. (With additional reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos)
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is 'Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals' since 2004).
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