A military campaign at a key Philippine port against Muslim gunmen opposed to peace talks ended yesterday with close to 500 rebels killed or captured and nearly 200 hostages freed, the Philippine army said.
“The threat to Zamboanga is over. The enemy has no organized resistance left,” Philippine military spokesperon Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said.
After nearly three weeks of fighting between troops and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), police will take over to clear the city of MNLF stragglers and find a key guerrilla leader who remains unaccounted for, he added.
The military said Nur Misuari, who founded the guerrilla group in the early 1970s, had sent his top lieutenant Habier Malik and hundreds of his armed followers to Zamboanga three weeks ago in a bid to derail peace talks with a rival Muslim rebel group.
The fighting claimed the lives of 23 soldiers and policemen as well as 12 civilians. There were injuries to 180 members of the security forces and 72 civilians.
Militants seized scores of hostages as they holed up in several coastal districts of the city of 1 million people, holding off 4,500 troops sent to root the rebels out.
More than 10,000 homes were razed in the ensuing street battles, forcing more than 100,000 people — about a 10th of the city’s population — to flee.
Philippine officials said yesterday they believed that all 195 hostages held by the gunmen had either escaped, or been rescued or released by the gunmen.
“The indications are that they are no longer holding any hostages,” Philippine military spokesperson Brigadier General Domingo Tutaan told reporters in Manila.
Abigail Valte, a spokesperson for Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, confirmed that all of those known to have been taken hostage were now accounted for.
“Remember that our task from day one is to ensure the safety of the hostages that were taken, to ensure their safe recovery as well as to get civilians out of harm’s way. And that’s already been accomplished,” she said on government radio.
Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Philippine Interior Secretary Mar Roxas visited Zamboanga’s Martha Street, the scene of some of the heaviest fighting, to raise the Philippine flag at a warehouse that they believed was used by the gunmen as a command post.
“Siege in Zamboanga City is over. We honour the fallen, the brave and the soldiers & policemen who died for their countrymen,” the city government quoted Roxas as saying on its official Twitter page.
Zagala said by telephone from Zamboanga that 183 guerrillas were killed and 292 others either surrendered or were captured. The authorities are checking the identities of some of the slain gunmen to determine whether guerrilla leader Malik was among them, he added.
Zagala said it would take the police forces between 10 and 14 days to clear the conflict areas of possible MNLF stragglers, unexploded bombs and booby traps.
“Clearing is critical,” he said, and the military forces involved in the fighting would remain in the city to support the police should the need arise.
The fighting encompassed between 30 and 40 hectares of densely packed communities and nearby mangrove swamps and fish pens, he added.
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.
The MNLF signed a peace treaty in 1996 that granted limited self-rule to the south’s Muslim minority. However, the group is opposed to a planned final peace deal between the government and the remaining major Muslim rebel group, the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The MNLF believes the deal could leave it sidelined.