Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Followers of a renegade Muslim leader in the Philippines seized scores of mostly Christian hostages Tuesday to use as "human shields" after the army used helicopter gunships and bombers in an effort to drive them out of a government complex they have occupied for several days.
The rebels are holed up inside a compound in Zamboanga City, the largest city in the area and regional military headquarters. They are supporters of Nur Misuari, the outgoing governor of a semi-autonomous Muslim entity who was suspended by the national government after a bloody armed uprising last week.
A military spokesman said around 50 hostages were being used as "human shields," and a Red Cross official allowed into the complex said the gunmen were threatening to kill them.
Brigadier General Edilberto Adan of the Philippine Army said at mid-afternoon that 25 rebels, a solder and a civilian had been killed.
The military offensive began after the armed rebels slipped out of the complex on a hill outside Zamboanga to seize hostages. Most then returned to their stronghold, from where they apparently hoped to negotiate safe passage.
They and other Misuari loyalists last week launched simultaneous attacks on several military bases on the nearby island of Jolo, triggering clashes that left more than 150 people dead.
The government said the uprising was aimed at preventing an election for a new governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), to succeed Misuari. That election went ahead Monday with no serious disruption but a low turnout reported.
Misuari himself fled by speedboat to neighboring Malaysia, but was arrested there on Saturday.
His followers holed up in Zamboanga - a mostly Christian city which falls outside the ARMM - were given an ultimatum to surrender Monday, but ignored it.
Misuari was the founder of the Moro National Liberation Front, one of three groups demanding a Muslim homeland in the southern Philippines. It signed a peace agreement with the government in 1996, leaving the militant struggle to the other two groups, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Abu Sayyaf.
The government and MILF agreed to a ceasefire several months ago, but the military has in recent weeks stepped up its offensive against Abu Sayyaf, a group believed to have links to Osama bin Laden.
Government officials have accused Misuari of collaborating with Abu Sayyaf in his armed uprising last week.
U.S. military experts have been advising the Philippine Army in its campaign against Abu Sayyaf, whose members have been holding an American missionary couple hostage for six months.
The captors of Martin and Gracie Burnham of Kansas, at the weekend allowed them access to a local television crew at a hideout on the island of Basilan. In an interview released Tuesday, the Burhams called for foreign intervention to end their plight.
"We know that the Philippine government is doing everything to rescue us," Martin Burnham said. "I don't want to sound disrespectful, but it's not working."
His wife appealed for the help of "any government" to negotiate their release.
President Gloria Arroyo's government has refused to negotiate with terrorists as its predecessor did. Last year Abu Sayyaf was reportedly paid millions of dollars in ransom for the release of another group of hostages, including westerners, after a deal brokered by Libya.
The Burnhams, missionaries with New Tribes Mission (NTM) who have been in the Philippines for 15 years, were seized last May while visiting an island tourist resort to celebrate their wedding anniversary.
The kidnappers also abducted more than 20 other mostly Filipino hostages. One of them, an American tourist from California, Guillermo Sobero, was subsequently killed by his captors.
Apart from the Burnhams, the gunmen are still holding a nurse, Deborah Yap.
NTM in the Philippines said Monday they had received reports from some of the other former hostages about the condition of the Burnhams, who are both 42.
Martin Burnham had taught the hostages Bible stories and regularly led them in songs and prayer, they had learned. He had also frequently discussed Christianity and Islam with their captors, they said.
"As people who have given so much of themselves to the Filipino people, they do not deserve this injustice. We appeal to [the kidnappers] to please release Martin and Gracia so they can return to their children and their families."
See earlier story:
Philippines Wrestles With Renewed Islamic Violence (Nov. 21 2001)