The Philippine military launched a helicopter assault yesterday at 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 held up in coastal villages in Zamboanga city, an Agence France-Presse reporter witnessed, as the military confirmed the attacks.
“This is a precision close air support directed by ground troops to suppress the enemy,” military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said.
The helicopter assault was the first air strikes since troops began their offensive on Friday last week 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 yesterday that 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.
He 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 that the military was very close to victory after taking some rebel positions at 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,” he said.
Heavily armed MNLF forces entered the port city’s coastal neighborhoods on Monday last week in a bid to sabotage talks between a rival rebel group and the government that are aimed at ending decades of conflict.
The rebels initially took dozens of hostages and burned hundreds of homes, forcing a shut down of Zamboanga, a city of about 1 million that is a key commercial hub in the region.
Zagala said MNLF rebels yesterday torched a section of Santa Barbara, one of the neighborhoods they had occupied, to slow down the military advance.
Volleys of gunfire were heard ringing out across Santa Barbara before the helicopter assault, while sniper fire from the rebels prevented firemen from approaching the burning community, a reporter said.