Gunmen occupy western Philippine island

Agence France-Presse – 8/18/2009 10:11 AM GMT

Armed men claiming to be members of a Muslim separatist group are negotiating their surrender after occupying an island in the western Philippines, military officials said Wednesday.

Troops and navy boats were sent to Marabon, off Palawan, after about 30 gunmen claiming to be members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) seized the island on Saturday, a police report said.

Some of Marabon’s residents were held in a mosque after most fled the island and reported the incident to authorities, police said.

Although the residents were later allowed to leave the mosque, the armed men had asked them not to leave the island.

Navy boats were now circling Marabon while attempts were made to convince the gunmen to surrender without a fight, police said.

"The armed men… are saying they are willing to surrender, so as of now, negotiations are being done by the members of the local government," said military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Romeo Brawner.

It was unclear why the gunmen occupied the island. The military was also trying to confirm whether they were members of the MNLF, once the Philippines’ largest Muslim separatist group.

In the 1970s the MNLF waged a bloody guerrilla campaign for a Muslim state in the southern Philippines, but ceased hostilities in 1996.