Conflict & Justice

Philippine government, Muslims rebels agree to ceasefire to end standoff in Mindanao


A Philippine soldier standing in an armoured personnel carrier adjusts his machine gun prior to an assault on Muslim rebel positions as the stand-off in the southern city of Zamboanga enters its fifth day on Sept. 13, 2013.

The Philippine government and a group of Muslim rebels involved in an ongoing crisis in the southern island of Mindanao have agreed to a ceasefire in preparation for talks for a peaceful settlement, the country's vice president said late Friday evening.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Moro National Liberation Front chairman Nur Misuari struck the agreement, which does not call for the surrender of the rebels on the ground, Vice President Jejomar Binay said.

"There is now an agreement for a peaceful settlement," Binay said in a radio interview, according to the Kyodo news service.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino visited the southern city of Zamboanga on Friday where government forces and Muslim rebels had been waging a deadly battle for the past five days.

Nearly 200 fighters from the MNLF stormed into the port city of nearly one million people last Monday and seized more than 100 residents.

Media reports said at least 22 people have been killed and 52 wounded during clashes, which been contained to six districts. At least four fires were raging in different parts of the city on Friday, possibly started by rebel fighters trying to keep the army at bay.

Aquino visited troops and some of the 24,000 people forced from their homes because of the fighting. He warned the MNLF fighters against harming the civilian hostages.

"Our forces and equipment on the ground are overwhelming," he told a news conference earlier. "We cannot rush this. We have to be deliberate in order to ensure no lives are lost unnecessarily. ... We're not setting a deadline, but we have decisive points. If they harmed hostages, resorted to arson and crossed other lines that should not be crossed, our security forces have instructions on what to do."

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Muslim rebels have been waging an armed campaign against the government since the 1970s. They want an autonomous region for minority Muslims in the predominantly Catholic country. 

MNLF leader Nur Misuari signed a peace accord with Manila in 1996, but the rebels kept their weapons and have since accused the government of violating parts of the agreement. One of the claims is the government hasn't developed the poor Mindano region.

The group has also reportedly felt excluded from negotiations between the government and a larger rival faction, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which split from the MNLF in 1978.

The latest crisis started Monday when members of the MNLF were intercepted by government troops as they marched into Zamboanga to hoist their flag at city hall. They reportedly said they wanted an independent state, not autonomy.

But senior leaders of the MNLF have sought to distance themselves from the rebel fighters, telling The Star they did not support their actions. This was backed up by a BBC report that said Misuari had denied authorizing the latest operation.

The fighting comes as US President Barack Obama announced he would travel to the Philippines in October.

Two days of talks are designed to strengthen "security, economic and people-to-people ties," a Philippine government representative told Kyodo.

Kyodo News International contributed to this report.