Philippines standoff: Rebels agree to ceasefire talks

Philippine Red Cross personnel help their wounded colleague after a mortar attack near the scene of fighting between government soldiers and Muslim rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in Zamboanga city in southern Philippines on 13 September 2013.
Image caption Over 15,000 residents have left their homes because of the violence

The leader of a Muslim rebel group whose members are fighting Philippine troops in Zamboanga city has agreed to ceasefire talks, officials say.

Vice-President Jejomar Binay, who spoke to rebel leader Nur Misuari, says the proposed truce will begin on Saturday.

It will end a five-day siege by nearly 200 separatist rebels, who have taken at least 100 residents hostage.

Over 22 people have died in clashes between rebels and troops since the rebels infiltrated the city on Monday.

About 15,000 residents have been displaced by the violence.

'No conditions'

The vice-president said he spoke by telephone to Nur Misuari, the leader of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), and Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, who both agreed to suspend fighting.

Mr Misuari has set no conditions in exchange for agreeing to the ceasefire, he added.

"The details of a peaceful settlement can be thrashed out with a ceasefire in place,'' he told the Associated Press news agency, adding that he plans to join the president in Zamboanga on Saturday.

President Benigno Aquino, who flew to the city on Friday, had earlier issued a warning to the rebels not to harm civilians.

He said government troops had "overwhelming" force and would not hesitate to use it.

Over 1,000 troops have been battling to drive MNLF rebels out of the city, who say they are fighting for an independent state.

"Our forces and equipment on the ground are overwhelming," Mr Aquino told a news conference in Zamboanga on Friday.

But he added: "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."

Officials said the rebels set fire to many homes in the city on Friday as a possible diversionary tactic to try to escape amid shortages of food, supplies and ammunition.

Four members of the Red Cross were reportedly injured after a mortar fired by the rebels landed on a street in front of a hospital in Santa Catalina.

The MNLF was founded by Nur Misuari in 1971, with the goal of fighting the Philippine state for an independent Islamic nation. The MNLF then signed a peace agreement with the government in 1996.

However Nur Misuari has complained that his faction has been marginalised in a peace agreement currently being negotiated between the government and another insurgent group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Last month, he declared an independent Muslim state in the southern Philippines..

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