Suspected Muslim rebels have attacked several villages on the outskirts of the southern Philippine city of Zamboanga and taken hundreds of people hostage, according to the city's mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco.
"HOSTAGES: 200 at Sta. Catalina Mosque, 20 at Talon-Talon Mosque, 10 at CAMACOP. undetermined no. in SDK bldg, Fernandez Store, and Lustre," a Tweet on the city's official account reads. The city also tweeted that at least 2,500 people are fleeing the area.
The hostages include women and children.
Claire Jose, a regional health officer and resident of Zamboanga, told Al Jazeera that the city looked like a "ghost town" because of a widespread shutdown.
Officials say they’re worried that the attackers might use the captives as “human shields.”
The military received information about an "armed aggression" last night, Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, a military spokesman, said.
At least six people, including a navy soldier, a police officer, and four civilians, have been killed, military officials said after the pre-dawn attack on Monday.
Army officials said they have secured hospitals and schools but clashes are still ongoing. The Philippines aviation authority has shut down the city's airport.
The navy men fought with about 100 suspected Moro National Liberation Front rebels, who were on board a large motorboat and eight smaller vessels off Rio Hondo, a crowded Muslim community in the port city of Zamboanga, military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said.
The pre-dawn clash later spilled into Rio Hondo as people slept, prompting scores of residents to flee. Rebels took the civilian hostages to thwart government forces, officials said.
“The ongoing attack of armed individuals in Zamboanga City, including initial reports of the possible use of civilians as human shields, is a cause for great concern. The authorities are responding to the situation in a manner that will reduce the risk to innocent civilians and restore peace and order to Zamboanga City at the soonest possible time,” a spokesman for Filipino president President Benigno S. Aquino said.
Reinforcement troops and police have been deployed to help secure Rio Hondo, which is located near the central Zamboanga, a bustling trading hub in the south.
Followers of separatist leader Nur Misuari clashed with soldiers as Mayor Isabelle Climaco-Salazar ordered all schools and offices to remain closed.
"Their target is the City Hall. They want to raise their flag of independence at city hall," she told radio station DZBB on Monday.
Aquino's spokesperson Edwin Lacierda condemned the attack, saying "it is incumbent on all people of goodwill to reject the violence that has erupted.”
"The authorities are responding to the situation in a manner that will reduce the risk to innocent civilians and restore peace and order to Zamboanga City at the soonest possible time," Lacierda said.
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.
MNLF has said it was being left out in 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 Moro Islamic Liberation Front has engaged the Philippine government in Malaysian-brokered peace talks, which have progressed recently towards a new Muslim autonomy deal.
A decades-old insurgency by Muslim rebels in the south has claimed about 150,000 lives.
U.S. forces that have been providing training to Filipino troops for years are based in a Philippine military camp in Zamboanga city, but officials said the skirmishes have been confined so far to Rio Hondo, where at least one policeman was wounded in sporadic gun battles.
Al Jazeera and wire services