Philippine troops move to end rebel standoff

AFP-JIJI

Philippine troops closed in on Muslim rebel positions Sunday and cut off escape routes to end a weeklong standoff that has left more than 60 people dead in the southern city of Zamboanga, officials said.

Sporadic clashes continued as soldiers moved to clear Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) gunmen from coastal neighborhoods after a cease-fire plan collapsed, with thousands more residents fleeing to safety.

As troops moved through the Santa Barbara district Sunday, the extent of the damage from seven days of fighting came into full view, with buildings reduced to smoldering heaps or pockmarked with bullet holes.

Soldiers recovered the bodies of two slain gunmen still clinging to their rifles, and several unexploded pieces of ordnance had been left behind by the fleeing rebels.

In the distance, black smoke billowed from another area that had just gone up in flames.

“We are continuing to press forward with our calibrated military response,” military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said.

Heavily armed MNLF forces entered the port city’s coastal neighborhoods Monday and took dozens of hostages in a bid to scupper peace talks between another militant group and the government aimed at ending a decades-long rebellion in the south.

But Zagala said the fighting was now concentrated in two coastal districts, while other areas were secure.

Day and night operations by at least 3,000 elite government troops have now seen 51 MNLF rebels killed, as well as six soldiers, a police officer and four civilians.

Air and sea ports remained closed Sunday in a crisis that has paralyzed the city of 1 million, seen entire neighborhoods razed to the ground and forced tens of thousands to flee.

On Saturday, police estimated that the gunmen were holding as few as seven civilian hostages, compared to more than 100 on Friday, with many either escaping or being allowed to go free.