Philippine troops attack rebels as ceasefire fails

AFP , Saturday 14 Sep 2013

Philippine troops clear last remaining Muslim rebels after six-day operation in the south that killed 43 militants and set dozens of hostages free

Philippine troops, seeking to end a six-day standoff that has killed more than 50 people in the south, were clearing the remaining Muslim rebels Saturday as a ceasefire plan collapsed.

Police estimated the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) gunmen were now holding as few as seven civilian hostages in the southern port city of Zamboanga, compared to more than 100 a day earlier, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said.

His comments boosted hopes that the crisis, which has left entire neighbourhoods razed to the ground by the gunmen and forced tens of thousands of residents to flee, would soon be resolved.

"By today, it's quite clear that not only is this incursion being contained, it has evolved into constriction, which is to reduce the operating space of the MNLF. Now it is into clearing," Roxas told reporters.

Relentless day and night operations by at least 3,000 elite government troops have killed 43 rebels while 19 others had been detained, said military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala.

"Right now we are optimistic that our operations are effective and that we are delivering a significant blow to our enemies," he told AFP.

"We hope that we can finish this calibrated response at the soonest possible time," he said, while refusing to give a timetable for action.

He cautioned that the remaining gunmen were still dangerous, with the military limited to using light weaponry to avoid civilian casualties.

He said the military and police forces had suffered six deaths, while four civilians were also killed.

The optimistic assessment of the operation came as a ceasefire plan brokered by Vice President Jejomar Binay between the government and MNLF leader Nur Misuari was abandoned.

"The vice president is sad that his efforts to secure the release of the hostages in Zamboanga City did not prosper," his spokesman Joey Salgado said in a statement.

"Both the MNLF and the Philippine government wanted peace, but there were terms set that were not acceptable," he said without elaborating.

Binay, the country's number-two elected official, followed President Benigno Aquino to Zamboanga on Saturday to discuss the ceasefire plan with the Filipino leader.

The standoff began on Monday, when heavily armed MNLF forces entered Zamboanga's coastal districts and took hostages in a bid to scupper peace talks between another militant group and the government.

At one time the gunmen used nearly 200 civilians as human shields, officials said.

The rebels also forced groups of the hostages to stand between them and attacking military units.

The fighting forced 69,000 people to flee their homes, the civil defence office said.

Nearly 500 houses were torched by the rebels, who shot at fire trucks sent to attend to the blazes, city fire marshal Dominador Zabala told reporters.

The MNLF waged a 25-year guerrilla war for independence before signing a peace treaty in 1996 that granted limited self-rule to the south's Muslim minority.

Misuari, who has accused the government of violating the terms of a 1996 treaty by negotiating a separate deal with a rival faction, had disappeared from public view shortly before the fighting began Monday.

The rival faction, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), is in the final stages of peace talks with Manila and is expected to take over an expanded autonomous Muslim region in the south by 2016.

President Aquino said the peace talks with the MILF aimed to end decades of rebellion that had claimed 150,000 lives in the country's Muslim southern regions.

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