MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) — Six people have been reported killed and dozens wounded and trapped after more than 100 suspected members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) infiltrated several coastal villages in Zamboanga City before dawn Monday.
Zamboanga City Mayor Ma. Isabelle Climaco-Salazar said in her official statement that the the fatalities include a navy personnel, a policeman and four civilians.
Twenty-four have also been wounded in the encounter between the government troops and the rebels that started around 4:30 a.m., according to Climaco.
Military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said elite Navy personnel clashed with a group of at least 100 armed MNLF rebels on board a large motorboat and eight small vessels off the village of Rio Hondo, a crowded Muslim community in the port city.
Chief Superintendent Juanito Banio, director of the Zamboanga Peninsula regional police office, earlier said that two persons have been confirmed killed in the clashes.
Both officials said that the rebels were also able to breach into the villages of Sta. Barbara and Lustre, where sporadic gunfire are being reported.
Reinforcement troops and police have been deployed to help secure Rio Hondo and the two other villages.
Banio said that the MNLF rebels are being led by Haber Malik, a Moro commander closely linked to the MNLF faction of former ARMM governor Nur Misuari.
220 trapped civilians
Climaco said the ongoing crisis situation has only affected the barangays of Sta. Catalina, Sta. Barbara, Talon-talon, Mampang and Kasanyangan.
Zamboanga City has a total of 98 barangays.
She said 200 people were reportedly being held hostage at the village of Kasanyangan along and 20 more in Barangay Sta. Catalina.
Around 600 residents have been evacuated from Arena Blanco and Rio Hondo villages while 847 people have fled to Tetuan Central School and Tetuan Parish Church. Several others are also at the Talon-talon National High School.
Climaco said the local government is mobilizing all resources to address the situation brought about by the occupation of alleged MNLF members in some coastal barangays.
"We are in close coordination with our police and military authorities and everything is being done to solve the crisis the soonest possible time with minimal damage to lives and properties," said Climaco.
The official assured that she is in touch with President Benigno Aquino III and the Executive Department and they are monitoring and helping to the situation.
"The public is advised to remain calm but vigilant and alert, report anything suspicious or unusual happening in your locality," she said.
Classes, flights canceled
City Mayor Ma. Isabelle Climaco-Salazar has canceled classes in all levels in the city while business establishments in the downtown have been shut down.
The Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines, meanwhile, declared the city a "no fly zone" due to the ongoing conflict.
It said that all commercial flights going to and from the city will remain suspended until 9 p.m. and its lifting would depend on the situation.
Cebu Pacific Air, earlier, canceled its flights to and from the city due to the conflict.
The Ninoy Aquino International Airport Media Affairs Division announced that Cebu Pacific Air started to call off its flights at 9:30 a.m.
It said that the next Cebu Pacific flight to Zamboanga City, flight 5J-857, which is expected to arrive at 11:15 a.m., is put on hold until the situation normalizes.
U.S. counterterrorism forces that have been providing training to Filipino troops for years are based in a military camp in the city, but officials said the skirmishes have been confined so far to the three villages.
The Moro group signed a 1996 peace accord with the government but many of its fighters held on to their arms and accused officials of reneging on a promise to develop an autonomous region for minority Muslims in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines.
The government is determined to sign a peace pact with another rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and has signed the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro.
The framework agreement paves the way for the creation of a new Bangsamoro entity in the Mindanao, which will replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.Bangsamoro entity in the Mindanao, which will replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.