Philippine forces freed scores of civilian hostages yesterday as fighting subsided in a port city where hundreds of rogue Muslim guerrillas have been battling for more than a week.
The fighting, in which nearly 100 people have been killed, has highlighted lingering grievances in the Catholic-majority country despite its growing economy and an agreement with the biggest Muslim rebel group that was meant to bring peace.
The guerrillas who stormed into Zamboanga on Monday last week belong to a breakaway faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
They object to a deal aimed at ending 40 years of conflict signed in October last year with the main Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and are trying to derail it.
An army spokesman yesterday said the guerrillas were fleeing from Zamboanga and heading to outlying islands, off the main southern island of Mindanao.
While the army had freed about 200 hostages since late on Monday, the fleeing rebels had taken captive a team of police officers, including the Zamboanga City police chief, police said.
Officials said Senior Superintendent Jose Chiquito Malayo was trying to persuade about 20 rebels to surrender on the outskirts of the city when the gunmen grabbed him and held him at gunpoint.
Philippine Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said efforts were under way to rescue Malayo, but he gave no details and it was not immediately known where the police chief was being held.
Armed forces spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala yesterday told reporters the army had killed 34 rebels in the past 24 hours
“Our forces continue to press on and push them out of the city ... We will finish this problem at the soonest possible time,” Zagala said. “The fighting is not over yet.”
A witness saw some of the rescued hostages with bruises and other minor injuries as they boarded army trucks and were taken away. Some elderly women wept. All of them looked exhausted.
About 80,000 people have been displaced in the nine days of fighting. Hundreds of homes, and several public and commercial buildings have been destroyed. Flights and ferry services are suspended.
The clashes could tarnish the image of the Philippines as a destination for foreign investment, but financial dealers yesterday said the violence has not had an impact on markets.
The fighting has brought the largely Christian city of Zamboanga to a halt.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III has been in Zamboanga since Friday last week to oversee the handling of the worst security crisis his administration has faced since he came to power in 2010.
Additional reporting by AP