MANILA, Philippines—Authorities are now conducting clearing operations in conflict-affected areas in Zamboanga City as the number of hostages being held by members of the Moro National Liberation Front went down.
“Papasok na po tayo sa maselan at delikadong bahagi ng operasyon. Pumapasok na tayo house-to-house (We will initiate the crucial part of the operation) ,” Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II said in a televised press conference in Zamboanga City.
Roxas said that as of lunchtime Wednesday, 178 civilians who escaped or freed by the rebels were already under the custody of government troops and were undergoing debriefing process.
Authorities have yet to rescue around 21 more hostages, he said.
As to the number of rebels left, Roxas estimated it to be around 50.
“Paliit nang paliit ang mundo ng mga rebelde at patibay naman ng patibay ang positioning ng militar (The rebels are losing ground and the military is strengthening its position ),” Roxas said.
Once arrested, the MNLF members will be slapped with rebellion charges, he added.
As of posting time, Roxas said operations were ongoing in Sta. Catalina and Sta. Barbara.
Soldiers pursued heavily armed Muslim rebels through the streets and homes of a major city Wednesday, warning they would be killed or captured unless they surrendered.
About 200 MNLF gunmen 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.
Eighty-six MNLF gunmen, as well as 11 soldiers and four civilians have already died in the ensuing conflict, which has seen street battles in neighborhoods occupied by the rebels as well as military helicopter rocket attacks.
Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said fresh fighting took place Wednesday, and soldiers had orders to “neutralize” the remaining 30-40 rebels, who were roaming through houses in urban areas.
“We will continue with our calibrated military response until they are neutralised, either through being killed or captured, or they surrender,” he said.
“We want to let them know there is no dishonor in surrendering, when that saves lives.”
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 rejected the condition.
Zagala emphasized the military was intent on not allowing the remaining rebels to escape, with troops blocking strategic routes out to sea.
Nevertheless, he said the troops could not conduct a full-out assault against the rebels for fear of endangering a number of civilians unable to leave the embattled neighborhoods.
“We want to finish this in the soonest possible time. But we want to ensure the safety and security of the civilians who are either trapped or being held hostage,” Zagala said.
The rebels have shown no intent to surrender despite being heavily outnumbered, with the military reporting that two more soldiers were killed on Tuesday.
Those deaths occurred as the military achieved one of its biggest breakthroughs, securing the release of more than 140 civilians after taking back control of some neighborhoods.
About 100,000 people, or roughly 10 percent of Zamboanga’s population, have been displaced due to the fighting, while the city has been brought to a standstill with schools closed and transport services suspended.
Muslim rebels have been fighting since the 1970s for an independent or autonomous homeland in Mindanao. An estimated 150,000 people have died in the conflict.
The MNLF signed a peace treaty in 1996 that granted limited self-rule to the south’s Muslim minority.
However MNLF troops never gave up all their weapons, as they had agreed.
Misuari deployed his men to Zamboanga to show opposition to a planned peace deal between the government and the remaining major Muslim rebel group, the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The MILF is close to signing the peace pact, which Misuari believes would sideline the MNLF.
One of the main points of contention is the envisaged creation of a new autonomous Muslim political and economic entity for the southern Philippines, to replace the one created under the MNLF-brokered deal in 1996.
The rival MILF would have most control of the new autonomous region and the potential riches on offer if large mineral deposits and the area’s fertile farming regions are exploited. With a report from Agence France Presse