Philippine soldiers pursued heavily armed Muslim rebels through the streets and homes of a major city yesterday, warning they would be killed or captured unless they surrendered.
About 200 members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) sailed into the southern port city of Zamboanga on Monday last week to stake an independence claim and derail peace talks aimed at ending a decades-long insurgency.
Eighty-six MNLF gunmen, as well as 11 soldiers and four civilians, have already died in the ensuing conflict, which has seen street battles in neighborhoods occupied by the rebels, as well as frequent military helicopter rocket attacks.
Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said fresh fighting took place yesterday, and soldiers had orders to “neutralize” the remaining 30-40 rebels, who were roaming through houses in urban areas.
“We will continue with our calibrated military response until they are neutralized, either through being killed or captured, or they surrender,” he said.
“We want to let them know there is no dishonor in surrendering, when that saves lives,” Zagala added.
MNLF leader Nur Misuari had reportedly called for safe passage for his men back to their island strongholds as part of a failed ceasefire initiative, but Philippine President Benigno Aquino rejected the condition.
Zagala emphasized the military was intent on not allowing the remaining rebels to escape, with troops blocking strategic routes out to sea.
Nevertheless, he said the troops could not conduct a full-out assault against the rebels for fear of endangering an unknown number of civilians unable to leave the embattled neighborhoods.
“We want to finish this in the soonest possible time, but we want to ensure the safety and security of the civilians who are either trapped or being held hostage,” Zagala said.
The rebels have shown no intent to surrender despite being heavily outnumbered, with the military reporting that two more soldiers were killed on Tuesday.
About 100,000 people, or roughly 10 percent of Zamboanga’s population, have been displaced due to the fighting, while the city has been brought to a standstill, with schools closed and transport services suspended.
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 conflict.