Muslim rebels tie up civilians with rope in human shield standoff in Philippines

Residents arrive at a stadium that has been turned into a evacuation center after fleeing their homes due to fighting between Moro National Liberation Front rebels (MNLF) and government soldiers in Zamboanga city on Wednesday. Reuters / Erik De Castro

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines -- Rogue Muslim rebels seeking to declare an independent state put a dozen civilians tied together by rope on display as a human shield on Wednesday as a standoff with security forces in a southern Philippine city entered its third day.

Waving white flags, the hostages shouted "please don't shoot" at soldiers as rebel snipers perched on roof of a residential block fired at the troops about 500 yards away in the Santa Barbara district of Zamboanga, a key port on the southern island of Mindanao.

In another part of the city, three wounded rebels were arrested after exchanging gunfire with police manning a road block to stop the rebels, a breakaway faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), from occupying other districts of the city.

Four decades of conflict in the south have killed 120,000 people, displaced two million and stunted growth in the poor but resource-rich area of the mainly Roman Catholic country.

Filipino soldiers take up positions behind an armored personnel carrier (APC) during clashes in Zamboanga city, southern Philippines, on Wednesday. Dennis M. Sabangan / EPA

Last year, another separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, signed a deal with the government, agreeing to a new autonomous region that gave it more political control.

That agreement, which spurred hopes of an economic revival, was opposed by the MNLF faction involved in the current standoff. It signed a deal with government in 1996, but complained Manila did not fulfill its side of the bargain.

"Our troops are only returning fire. We are not launching an offensive," army spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala said. "Our mission is to contain them not to rescue hostages."

The standoff has paralyzed the port with as many as 170 civilians believed to be trapped, if not physically held hostage.

Schools, shops, offices were closed for the third day. Flights and ferry services were also suspended. Around 12,000 people have been displaced in five districts of the port, known as the city of flowers.

Zamboanga is the main commercial, educational and government center of the south. It is also a gateway for goods like sardines and is a major oil depot.

Isabelle Climaco-Salazar appealed to rebels to free the hostages and discuss their grievances with Manila, suggesting a third-party mediator intervene.

"This is no longer a local problem, this is an international problem," she said in a television interview.

Medics wheel a suspected Muslim rebel on a gurney after he was shot and wounded at a checkpoint for allegedly concealing a pistol in a plastic bag of rice during a continuing standoff with government forces on Wednesday. Bullit Marquez / AP