MANILA (Reuters) - Hundreds of Maoist guerrillas killed three men, took hostages and torched equipment and facilities in an attack on a major nickel mine in the southern Philippines on Monday, security officials said.
Three members of the private security agency guarding the Taganito Mining Corporation (TMC) in Surigao del Norte province on the southern island of Mindanao were killed when they tried to stop the rebels, Colonel Rodrigo Diapana told reporters.
"We got reports that four people were also taken captive," he said, adding extra troops and two helicopters were sent to track down the rebel group. Later, two of the hostages were reported to have been freed.
Taganito is a unit of Nickel Asia Corp, which is partly owned by Japan's Sumitomo Metal Mining Co Ltd.
Reynaldo Rafal, regional police chief, said there were dozens of Japanese nationals who were working in nearby mines when about 200-300 rebels, some in army uniforms, stormed the nickel project site in Claver town.
"They are all safe, they were not harmed," Rafal told reporters. The Japanese embassy in Manila later confirmed the workers were accounted for and safe.
Another group of rebels attacked the nearby Platinum Metals Group Corp also in Claver town, Surigao del Norte. Three hours later, another mine site operated by another Taganito company, Taganito HPAL Corporation, was also attacked by rebels.
Maoists have been fighting to overthrow successive governments for more than 40 years. Peace talks resumed with the current government in February after a break of six years, but further planned talks have since repeatedly been delayed.
The rebels extort money from businesses in areas they control, calling it 'revolutionary taxation', and are a major impediment to investment outside urban areas.
"These acts were a form of punishment because mine owners did not give in to the extortion demands," said Major Eugene Osias, an army spokesman, adding they expected more attacks because the rebels were desperate for funds.
Nickel Asia, the Philippines' largest nickel producer, suspended operations at the mine indefinitely.
"We understand that certain equipment of TMC, as well as our affiliate, Taganito HPAL Corporation, were burned," the company told the stock exchange.
Security officials said the rebels seized three Taganito Mining Corporation officials at roadblocks and used them to get into the mining sites.
After disarming private security guards at the site, the rebels herded all the people in an open area and set fire to equipment and facilities, Rafal said.
The rebels burned trucks, digging equipment, and the TMC guesthouse. They also seized several guns from private security guards and smashed computers in the site offices.
In December 2010, Maoists threatened to step up attacks on mines in the Philippines saying they destroyed the environment, displaced indigenous people and took mineral wealth from poor Filipinos.
In June, Nickel Asia said its sales volumes were likely to increase about 20 percent this year, with most material going to China. It aimed to sell about 10 million tons of ore this year, topping 8.3 million tons last year.
(Reporting by Erik dela Cruz and Manny Mogato; Editing by John Mair and Daniel Magnowski)