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Philippines faces new hostage crisis

Rebels display some of their hostages held at the Muslim regional government compound in Zamboanga  

By Rufi Vigilar in Manila

MANILA, Philippines (CNN) -- Muslim separatist rebels have abducted scores of civilians in the southern city of Zamboanga and are using them as human shields against ground and air attacks by Philippine troops.

The rebels, belonging to a disgruntled faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), have begun moving out of a goverment office in Cabatangan with their hostages in tow.

The military has ordered troops to back off and hold their fire.

Zamboanga congressman Celso Lobregat told CNN that there were about 20 to 40 hostages, but a Red Cross volunteer allowed access to the rebels said there were as many as 150 civilian captives from the towns of Santa Maria and Pasonanca.

The military attacks began before dawn Tuesday, after a 48-hour deadline for the rebels to surrender lapsed.

The new hostage crisis follows attacks by rebel comrades last week on military camps in Jolo, southwest of Zamboanga.

Rebel demands

The rebels were trying to stop Monday's election for a new set of officials for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

But the military was able to quell the violence in Jolo and pave the way for peaceful ARMM elections Monday.

The MNLF faction's leader Nur Misuari was suspended as ARMM governor after the Jolo attack and faces rebellion charges.

Misuari tried to escape to Malaysia but has been arrested there and is being detained.

Misuari signed a 1996 peace deal with the government and became ARMM governor, but recently renewed a call to arms.

He is protesting the goverment's decision to push through with Monday's polls, saying no sufficient consultation was held with the MNLF and the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), as agreed in the 1996 peace deal.

However, the government says Misuari has been an inefficient governor and is trying to hold on to power. He still has to account for billions of pesos in ARMM funds.

Misuari was isolated within the MNLF after the goverment supported an opposing faction that voted him out as chairman of the rebel group in April.

Uneasy lull

polling booth
Soldiers guard voters in elections Monday to replace rebel governor Misuari  

Congressman Lobregat said Philippine troops are dealing with "between 150 to 200 rebels."

Fighting temporarily subsided Tuesday morning, as negotiations took place between the rebels, the military, and local government officials.

"They were asking for safe passage, but there may be more problems because they might take the hostages with them," Lobregat said.

The military had said that the bombardment would continue until the rebels lay down their arms and surrender.

The military's attention is now divided between the MNLF rebels and the Abu Sayyaf -- another Muslim separatist group which is still holding two Americans and a Filipino hostage.

Flights to Zamboanga City have been suspended and schools closed. City Mayor Maria Clara Lobregat urged residents to remain indoors.


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