, ZAMBOANGA, Philippines September 11- Thousands of residents fled as fighting between Philippine troops and Muslim rebels intensified Wednesday on the third day of a deadly siege in a key southern city.
At least 13,000 people crammed into Zamboanga city sports stadium seeking safety as soldiers battled gunmen and snipers in nearby deserted neighbourhoods.
People began fleeing Monday when about 180 Moro National Liberation Front guerrillas seeking to derail peace talks poured into six of the port city’s coastal neighbourhoods.
In the Santa Catalina neighbourhood Wednesday, Philippine marines traded fire with gunmen who appeared to be using 10 residents on a roadside as human shields, an AFP photographer said.
One of the residents was waving a white cloth tied to a pole.
In the same neighbourhood police arrested two male MNLF suspects, wounding one of them. Officers told AFP the men were carrying bags of rice which they had scattered on the floor to reveal two hidden pistols.
In the nearby community of Santa Barbara two suspected rebel snipers fell from the upper sections of a mosque after taking fire from an armoured troop carrier, another AFP reporter saw.
About three kilometres (two miles) away, an increasing number of people were taking refuge in the city sports stadium.
“We’re trying our best to provide decent facilities for them,” government social worker Beth Dy told AFP while adding that the venue only had four portable toilets and no bedding.
About 5,000 residents from the six communities under siege arrived overnight and some had no choice but to pitch makeshift tents on the grass, Dy said.
Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman, who arrived in the city Wednesday to run the humanitarian operation, said the numbers at the stadium were growing.
The six communities under siege are home to 160,000 mainly Muslim residents.
Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said police and the military had the areas surrounded but ruled out a military assault, saying this could lead to heavy civilian casualties.
“We continue to look for ways to solve this problem peacefully,” he told a news conference.
“We ask you to extend your patience further.”