Philippine rebels call for foreign mediation

Standoff in the southern Philippines continues as troops surround MNLF rebels with their hostages in four villages

Philippine troops take cover from enemy snipers as the stand-off between the military and Muslim gunmen enters its third day.

Rebel fighters holding scores of hostages in the southern Philippines have demanded international mediation, an official said.

The rebels, enraged by a broken peace deal with the government, are holding the civilian hostages as human shields near the port city of Zamboanga.

Troops have surrounded the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) members and their hostages in four coastal villages.

Last month, the MNLF issued new threats to secede by establishing its own republic.

Its leader, Nur Misuari, however, has not appeared in public or issued any statement since about 200 of his followers barged into Zamboanga city's coast early Monday and clashed with soldiers and police.

The fighting left at least nine people dead and several wounded.

The rebels took scores of residents hostage, holding them in houses and a mosque that have been ringed by troops.

President Benigno Aquino III said the top priority was the safety of the hostages and residents of the city.

Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said officials had opened talks with the rebels "at different levels," including a commander loyal to Misuari, but added there had been no breakthrough.

Decades-old insurgency

The MNLF 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 group has said it was being left out of the government's negotiations with another rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which broke away from the MNLF in the early 1980s.

The 11,000-strong MNLF has engaged the Philippine government in Malaysian-brokered peace talks, which have progressed recently toward a new Muslim autonomy deal.

A decades-old insurgency by Muslim fighters in the south has killed about 150,000 people.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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