A Catholic priest was among some 250 civilians who were taken hostage by rebel Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fighters in the southern Philippine city of Zamboanga on Monday.
Monsignor Chris Manongas, administrator of the Archdiocese of Zamboanga, said Father Michael Ufana was taken by MNLF gunmen from his parents’ house.
“They were not able to leave. The [MNLF] took over the house. That’s how it happened,” he said.
The Mindanao Human Rights Action Center corroborated the report, citing an eyewitness who saw the taking of Ufana. Police officials confirmed Ufana was taken hostage.
Another Catholic priest, whose name was not released for security reasons, was also trapped in one of the villages taken over by the MNLF.
Manongas told ucanews.com he was able to talk with the second priest over the phone. “He is inside the church with some refugees. He said they have no food and water,” said Manongas.
“[We are] having difficulty penetrating the place because it is cordoned off by the military. It is very dangerous because the fighting is around the church.”
Thousands of refugees, most of them Muslims from five villages taken over by MNLF fighters, have sought shelter in three churches in the area.
“We are helping. We are not afraid. Our social action center here is working hard. We are even putting our lives in danger just to be able to help these people,” Manongas said.
“We condemn in the highest form this violent attempt to take over the city by the MNLF. We call on them to please listen to the voice of sanity,” he added.
Heavy exchanges of gunfire continued on Tuesday as the standoff entered its second day. Rocket-propelled grenades and mortars were fired on the village of Talon-Talon.
As of 3pm on Tuesday several houses in the village of Santa Barbara were burning. The city government said four firefighters tried to get into the area but were advised by the military to wait for clearance.
Offices were earlier closed while city streets emptied. A curfew was declared last night across the city and in the nearby province of Basilan.
The death toll currently stands at six, with 24 wounded. President Benigno Aquino has said there is no need to declare a state of emergency in Zamboanga City, given the presence of government security forces.
The MNLF is demanding independence from the Philippine government.