President Benigno Aquino (centre, in black) checking on the condition of wounded soldiers at Camp Navarro Hospital in Zamboanga City, in southern Philippines.
ZAMBOANGA: Philippine troops seeking to end a six-day stand-off that has killed more than 50 people in the south were clearing the remaining Muslim rebels yesterday 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 had 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,” Roxas told reporters. “From contained it has evolved into constriction, which is to reduce the operating space of the MNLF. Now it is into clearing.”
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 said.
“We hope that we can finish this calibrated response at the soonest possible time,” he said, while refusing to give a timetable.
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 dead 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 yesterday to discuss the ceasefire plan with the Filipino leader.
The stand-off 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.