At least 56 dead after six-day Philippines rebel standoff
Troops battle their way into southern villages where scores of hostages being held
Government soldiers take cover near armoured vehicles as they seek to assault the positions of Muslim rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front during a gun battle in Zamboanga city in the southern Philippines yesterday. Photograph: Erik De Castro/Reuters
Filipino troops have started to battle their way into coastal villages in the south of the country which are being held by Muslim rebels, who had taken scores of hostages, in order to end a six-day stand-off that has left at least 56 people dead.
Philippines interior secretary Mar Roxas said government forces surrounding about 200 fighters from a Moro National Liberation Front rebel faction have started to retake some of the rebel-held areas and clear roads in coastal villages in Zamboanga city.
President Benigno Aquino III said more firefights are expected, but assured thousands of displaced villagers at a sports complex in Zamboanga city that the rebels’ capability to sow trouble has been degraded and the government was working to end the crisis soon.
The stand-off has sent more than 60,000 residents fleeing from homes.
The Moro insurgents, led by rebel leader Nur Misuari, signed a peace deal in 1996, but the guerrillas did not lay down their arms and later accused the government of reneging on a promise to develop long-neglected Muslim regions in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation.
The government says Misuari kept stalling and making new demands.
The rebels have become increasingly restive in recent months as they were overshadowed by a rival rebel group, which have engaged Mr Aquino’s government in peace talks brokered by Malaysia. The talks have steadily progressed toward a new and potentially larger autonomy deal for minority Muslims in the south.
Misuari has not been seen in public since the stand-off began.
Vice-president Jejomar Binay said Misuari agreed to a truce yesterday by telephone, and he relayed the news to defence secretary Voltaire Gazmin, who has been helping deal with the crisis in Zamboanga city. Mr Binay flew to Zamboanga to help deal with the crisis.
Mr Gazmin said the rebels have continued to fire their weapons, in violation of the agreement.
“Everybody wants peace, to stop this without more bloodshed,” Mr Gazmin told DZBB radio network. “But as we speak, there’s firing, so there’s no ceasefire. We agreed that government forces will not fire only if the MNLF will not open fire.”