Philippine troops step up effort against Muslim rebels in Zamboanga

AFP-JIJI

The Philippine military launched a helicopter assault Monday on Muslim rebels occupying parts of a major southern city, stepping up efforts to end an eight-day standoff that has left dozens dead.

Two air force helicopters fired rocket rounds toward Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels holed up in coastal villages in Zamboanga city as the military confirmed the attacks.

“This is a precision close air support directed by ground troops to suppress the enemy,” military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said.

The helicopter assault was the first airstrike since troops began their offensive on Friday in an attempt to defeat the MNLF forces, who have been using civilians as human shields. Asked about the potential for the civilians to be caught up in the helicopter assaults, Zagala emphasized they were “precision” strikes.

Zagala said earlier Monday up to 100 MNLF rebels were still engaged in ground battles with troops around the two coastal villages, a week after the guerrillas invaded Zamboanga 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,” he said, but insisted the military was very close to victory after taking some rebel positions over 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 as civilians, so it’s very critical that the village elders help us identify those who are not from their neighborhoods.”

Heavily armed MNLF forces entered the port city’s coastal neighborhoods on Sept. 9 in a bid to sabotage talks between a rival rebel group and the government that are aimed at ending decades of conflict.

Muslim rebels have been fighting since the 1970s for an independent or autonomous homeland in the south of the mainly Catholic Philippines. An estimated 150,000 people have died in the fighting.

The latest violence in Zamboanga has left 51 MNLF fighters, six security forces and four civilians dead, according to Zagala.