Twenty-two people have been killed while almost 30,000 fled their homes due to clashes between state forces and Moro gunmen in Zamboanga City, authorities said Friday, as fighting raged for the fifth day.

The number of evacuees rose to 5,667 families or 29,557 persons after the city government implemented a forced evacuation in some areas, Adriano Fuego, Office of Civil Defense-9 director, said.

The city government, in a resolution, ordered evacuations in Brgys. Rio Hondo, Sta. Barbara, Sta. Catalina, Talon-Talon, Mampang, and “other affected barangays” on Thursday.

Fighting has already affected seven areas – Brgys. Zone 4 Poblacion, Mampang, Talon-talon, Kasanyangan, Sta. Catalina, Rio Hondo, Mariki, and Sta. Barbara – as of Friday afternoon, Fuego said by phone.

“The evacuees from these areas are staying in 17 evacuation centers… (kailangan nila ng) mga gamot and hygienic materials but we already requested for that. Hindi problema ang food dahil maraming galing sa city government. Ang problema lang talaga ay ‘yung influx ng evacuees,” he said.

Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, Armed Forces public affairs chief, said the number of fatalities has already reached 22 while that of the injured stood at 52.

The fatalities comprise two soldiers, three policemen, two civilians, and 15 followers of MNLF chairman Nur Misuari, Zagala, who is in the city, said in a text message to reporters in Manila.

Injured were 28 soldiers, six policemen, and 18 civilians, he said.

Nineteen MNLF members are now in state custody after being arrested, injured in clashes, or surrendering, Zagala said.

The number of casualties does not yet include people injured in clashes that happened in Sta. Catalina, Sta. Barbara, Mariki, and Rio Hondo in the afternoon, just hours after President Benigno Aquino III visited the city.

Aquino, in a televised press conference, said he will use the state’s “full force” to protect civilians from more attacks by the gunmen.

Fires hit homes and establishments in Sta. Catalina, Sta. Barbara, Mariki, and Rio Hondo as MNLF troops fired mortar rounds and grenade launchers against advancing government troops, television footages showed.

Soldiers, backed by tanks, marched and took fighting positions on the streets.

Eleven Philippine Red Cross staff and volunteers were injured when a mortar round exploded in the afternoon, the organization said in its Twitter account.

Before the President arrived, MNLF members on 6 a.m. freed Fr. Michael Ufana, a Catholic priest who is among the more than 100 hostages held by rebels, police confirmed.

Ustadz Habier Malik, an MNLF commander, in a radio interview, said they freed Ufana to help facilitate negotiations with the government. (John Roson)

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