MANILA, Philippines — About 200 fighters belonging to a fringe Muslim rebel group have been holding scores of civilians as human shields in Zamboanga city in the southern Philippines. The 4-day-old standoff is a major distraction for the government hoping to enforce a lasting peace in the troubled Muslim-minority south. But it is unlikely to sabotage a peace effort it is forging with the dominant militant group, one of the many militias nurturing their dream of an Islamic homeland.
Here's a look at the main players and spoilers in the government's plan to establish an autonomous Muslim region after four decades of conflict that has left more than 120,000 people dead.
MORO NATIONAL LIBERATION FRONT: The armed men holding the hostages in Zamboanga belong to this group. It emerged in the 1970s – under the leadership of former university lecturer Nur Misuari – as the main driver for the minority Muslims' struggle for self-rule in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation. Misuari signed a deal in 1977 with then President Ferdinand Marcos for establishing an autonomous Muslim region. This angered hardliners in the group who split. The peace deal fell short of expectations, and now Misuari's faction has only about 400 fighters.
MORO ISLAMIC LIBERATION FRONT: One of the hardliners who broke away from MNLF was Hashim Salamat, who vowed to continue the armed struggle. He mobilized about 11,000 fighters by propagating an Islamic ideology as the unifying force behind Filipino Muslims who are known as Bangsamoro. Salamat died in 2003 and was succeeded by Murad Ibrahim.
OTHER FACTION: MILF also has a breakaway faction called the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. It is believed to have about 200 armed fighters and hundreds of followers.
ABU SAYYAF: Beginning in the 1990s, a more violent faction of former guerrillas indoctrinated by radical Islam banded together as the Abu Sayyaf, demanding an independent state for Muslims in the southern Philippines. The group gained notoriety over the next two decades for some of the most spectacular mass kidnappings and terrorist attacks, including the 2004 ferry bombing in Manila Bay that killed 116 people. It remains opposed to any peace deal. The government says it is made up of 300 "bandits."
NEW BID FOR PEACE: The 2010 landslide victory of President Benigno Aquino III reinvigorated the peace process with MILF. Last year, after 12 years of negotiations brokered by Malaysia, Aquino and the MILF signed a roadmap to peace that would enlarge and empower the current autonomous region. In exchange, the MILF gave up its quest for independence.
MNLF'S ANGST: MILF'S prominent role in the peacemaking angered Misuari who felt left out. He felt betrayed since he had concluded a peace deal in 1996 to create the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao of which he was elected chairman. Last month, he declared an independent republic in the Mindanao region. The plan never worked. Presidential adviser Teresita Deles said Misuari kept on stalling and then made new demands, including the establishment of a "provisional government" in the south for his group.
DEJA VU: The current hostage crisis bears a resemblance to a 2001 attack, in which Misuari's forces held hostage scores of civilians, also in Zamboanga city. He later escaped to Malaysia but was captured and extradited to the Philippines, where he was jailed on rebellion charges before being granted bail in 2008.