ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines—The military on Monday launched air strikes on Moro rebels occupying coastal villages here, stepping up efforts to end a standoff that has killed dozens and displaced thousands of people.
As the standoff entered a second week, two M250 helicopters fired four rockets toward Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebel positions on the coast.
The air strikes sped up recovery of ground from the rebels. Officials said government troops had recovered 70 percent of the coastal areas by late Monday.
“This is a precision close air support directed by ground troops to suppress the enemy,” military spokesperson Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said.
The helicopter assault was the first air strikes since government troops began their offensive on Friday to defeat the MNLF rebels, who have been using civilians as human shields.
Asked about the potential for the hostages to be caught up in the air assault, Zagala emphasized they were “precision” strikes.
Many of the rebels’ hostages have escaped or have been freed as the fighting began to intensify on Saturday.
Under heavy pressure on the ground and from the air on Monday, the rebels occupying Santa Catalina village freed 26 of the hostages, most of them students.
The freed hostages were taken to the office of the police Criminal Investigation and Detection Group here for screening and debriefing.
Zagala said up to 100 rebels from the MNLF faction led by Nur Misuari were still engaged in ground battles with troops around the coastal villages of Santa Catalina and Santa Barbara, a week after the gunmen barged into Zamboanga City to stake an independence claim.
Zagala said the rebels were defiant in the face of the military advance.
“They still have ammunition and they continue to fire at us. It is only a matter of time before they run out [of ammunition],” he said, but insisted the military was very close to victory after taking some rebel positions on the weekend.
“We know for a fact that the end is near and they are trying to flee. Some of them may be trying to disguise themselves as civilians, so it’s very critical that the village elders help us identify those who are not from their neighborhoods.”
Sporadic fighting went on in the villages of Santa Catalina, Santa Barbara and Rio Hondo on Monday as government troops and police pressed the assault on rebel positions.
Sabotaging peace talks
The heavily armed followers of Misuari stormed into coastal villages here on Monday last week in a bid to sabotage peace talks between the government and the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that are aimed at ending four decades of conflict in Mindanao.
The rebels initially took dozens of hostages and burned hundreds of homes, forcing a shutdown of Zamboanga, a city of about one million and a key commercial hub in the south.
Zagala said earlier that 51 rebels, three soldiers, three policemen and five civilians have been killed in eight days of fighting.
He said 48 rebels were either captured or surrendered. Most of those who had been captured were caught trying to escape along the coast on Sunday after discarding their camouflage uniforms for ordinary clothes.
Senior Supt. Jose Chiquito Malayo, city police chief, said those captured included five rebels who were caught on Monday trying to escape disguised as policemen.
Eighty-five have been wounded: 46 soldiers, 10 policemen, 20 civilians and nine rebels.
The fighting on Monday sent more residents fleeing their homes on the coast.
Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman said the number of evacuees had reached 81,806 as of Monday afternoon, a steep climb from 69,000 on Sunday.
The evacuees jam-packed the sports complex and more than 20 other shelters in the city, including the Western Mindanao regional office of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).
Elizabeth Pilorin, chief of the DPWH Public Information Division, said 238 people were sheltered in the Zamboanga office as of Monday morning. About half of the evacuees were employees of the DPWH.
“The evacuees are mostly residents of barangays (villages) Santa Catalina, Santa Barbara, Talon-Talon, Kabatangan and Hadjiril Madan Mariki,” Pilorin said.
Zagala said the rebels on Monday torched a section of Santa Barbara to slow down the military advance.
Volleys of gunfire were heard ringing out across Santa Barbara before the helicopter assault while sniper fire from the rebels prevented fire fighters from approaching the burning community.
After its Philippine representative visited Zamboanga, the New York-based Human Rights Watch expressed concern for civilians trapped in the conflict.
The United Nations humanitarian coordinator in the Philippines, Luiza Carvalho, has also called for safe passage for noncombatants amid the conflict.
On Monday, US Ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas joined Carvalho and called for a humanitarian corridor to allow the safe passage of civilians being held by the MNLF rebels and those caught in the crossfire between the rebels and government troops.
Two Mindanao lawmakers on Monday urged a peaceful resolution to the crisis even after the military had already launched ground and air offensives on the rebels.
Rep. Sandra Sema of Maguindanao and Rep. Tupay Loong of Sulu said the people’s cry to end the war for the sake of innocent civilians must be heard.
“There will be no victor in this war but only losers. The issue that both are fighting for cannot be resolved through war but only through peaceful negotiations,” Sema and Loong said in a joint statement.
Feeding the evacuees
The rising number of evacuees has begun to pose problems for the government.
To claim their meals prepared by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), the evacuees, 44,000 of them in the sports complex alone, have to stand in line for at least two hours.
Food rations consist of rice, eggs and canned goods.
Narrabelle Bue, public information officer of the DSWD regional office here, said food and water supplies for the evacuees were enough.
“Our problem is with the preparation. It is not easy to prepare food for 44,000,” Bue said.
“We have tapped local catering services to provide food,” she said.
At least three caterers and the canteen staff of Western Mindanao State University are now part of the DSWD team tasked to prepare food for the evacuees.
The DSWD kitchen and the hired caterers can produce 40,000 food packs for each meal. The local government has committed to provide 12,000 food packs.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has also committed to provide 10,000 food packs for dinner every day, Bue said.
With manpower still short, the DSWD is considering tapping parent leaders on the government’s cash transfer program who are in the evacuation centers to beef up the workforce in the kitchens.
“They will be hired under the cash-for-work program so they will also have a source of income,” Bue said.—With reports from Jerry E. Esplanada, Tarra Quismundo, Leila Salaverria and Dona Z. Pazzibugan in Manila, and AFP