Fighting in Zamboanga City diminishing – military

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Males who claim to be hostages are escorted to a waiting vehicle after being released from the hands of Muslim rebels in Zamboanga city in southern Philippines Tuesday Sept.17, 2013. AP

MANILA, Philippines – Fresh gunbattle between government forces and Moro National Liberation Front gunmen in Zamboanga City continued for the 10th day on Wednesday, but the military claimed that fighting was diminishing.

“Yes, definitely,” military spokesman Brig. Gen. Domingo Tutaan Jr. told reporters in a press briefing when asked if the firefight has subsided, adding that, “it was not  intense as of yesterday (Tuesday).”

“But again we must understand that even if there are one or two (rebels) left on this,  we have to make sure that they are not able to launch any violent action or any form of atrocity,” he said.

The military said soldiers had orders to “neutralize” the remaining 30-40 rebels, who were roaming through houses in urban areas.

The spokesman said the military is still on “calibrated response” even as efforts “are not as intense” in the past few days.

MNLF leader Nur Misuari had reportedly called for safe passage for his men back to their island strongholds as part of a failed ceasefire initiative, but President Benigno Aquino III rejected the condition.

The military started their offensive last Friday, with the Air Force resorting to airstrikes for the first time since the start of the fighting in support of ground troops last Monday.

Tutaan said they were still engaging with about 70 MNLF fighters, which includes Habier Malik, a known follower of MNLF founding chairman Nur Misuari.

The spokesman said there could be less than a hundred hostages still taken by the MNLF forces used as human shields.

He also said that the rebels were possibly hiding in the villages of Sta. Barbara and Sta. Catalina. A fire broke out near Sta. Catalina early in the day.

At least 10 fire incidents have been recorded since the start of the siege., razing to the ground hundreds of homes.

On Monday, the military claimed that it has recaptured 70 percent of areas occupied by the MNLF.

“Other areas that were already in government control are now being cleared. We don’t want any collateral damage after the conflict in that area. We want to able to ensure that the area is safe for them to return,” Tutaan said.

He said it was also possible that the rebels are running low on ammunition.

“They will not sustain if it was a continuous firefight but then again we cannot engage in a continuous firefight because of the civilians,” he said.

Casualties from the running gunbattle rose anew on Wednesday. In the military’s latest update, 104 had been killed from the fighting, with 14 from the combined security forces and 83 MNLF forces. Seven fatalities were civilians.

Civilian casualties also increased to 67, from a recorded 39 wounded persons on Tuesday.

A report from the Department of Social Welfare and Development said that as of 12 noon, displaced persons went up to almost 110,000.

About 200 MNLF members believed to be backed by Misuari sailed into the southern port city of Zamboanga on September 9 to stake an independence claim and derail peace talks aimed at ending a decades-long insurgency. With a report from Agence France Presse

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