— The National Defense chief of the Philippines said Saturday a three-week long standoff is over between government forces and a Muslim rebel faction they say kept about 200 people as human shields in a southern port city.
The Department of National Defense said the crisis in Zamboanga City was over, but troops are continuing operations to remove the last remaining fighters of a Moro National Liberation Front faction.
Armed Forces spokesman Brigadier General Domingo Tutaan said forces were doing a thorough search of marshlands and areas in and around Zamboanga neighborhoods where faction members positioned themselves during the standoff that began September 9.
“So it’s really clearing in the strict sense of it, of any member of the Misuari faction, who are probably hiding or holed out in the area, avoiding or trying to elude arrest," he said.
While 195 hostages are free, Tutaan said the military could not say with “100 percent” certainty that there were no more hostages in rebel hands.
More than 150 people have died in the fighting and more than two-thirds of those killed were rebel faction members. Tutaan said at least 375 rebels were involved in the incident that began after the military learned of an alleged plan by the group to hoist a separatist flag in Zamboanga City Hall. The military said the rebels then used scores of civilians as human shields.
Government troopers arrive to reinforce their comrades after an army officer was killed in the ongoing operation against Muslim rebels, Zamboanga, Philippines, Sept. 19, 2013.
Evacuees line up to receive food as fighting between government forces and Muslim rebels continued, Zamboanga, Philippines, Sept. 19, 2013.
Residents line up for a shower in a stadium turned into an evacuation center in Zamboanga, Philippines, Sept. 18, 2013.
Villagers who fled the fighting between government forces and Muslim rebels rest in their tents along a boulevard in Zamboanga, Philippines, Sept. 18, 2013.
Boats of villagers fleeing the fighting between government forces and Muslim rebels crowd a port in Zamboanga, Philippines, Sept. 18, 2013.
Government troops fire mortars during renewed fighting between government forces and Muslim rebels, who have taken scores of hostages, in Zamboanga city in the southern Philippines, Sept. 16, 2013.
Government troops prepare an assault on Muslim rebels in Zamboanga, Philippines, Sept. 13, 2013.
Government soldiers wearing ammunition prepare to attack Muslim rebels in Zamboanga, Philippines, Sept. 13, 2013.
Government troopers prepare for an assault on Muslim rebels in Zamboanga, Philippines, Sept. 13, 2013.
Firemen rush to put out a fire that razed several homes as government troopers continue their assault on Muslim rebels in Zamboanga, Philippines, Sept. 12, 2013.
A man throws water into a burning house in Zamboanga, Philippines, Sept. 12, 2013.
Residents believed to be hostages wave white cloths as they shout at troops to stop their operation in the continuing standoff with Muslim rebels, Zamboanga, Philippines, Sept.11, 2013.
Residents who abandoned their homes carry their belongings during a standoff in Zamboanga, Philippines, Sept. 10, 2013.
Government operations included air strikes and what they called “calibrated” or focused attacks on the group that they said belongs to a faction led by former MNLF chairman Nur Misuari. Misuari has been out of the public eye since the conflict began.
Ustadz Habier Malik, a ranking MNLF commander under Nur Misuari, is believed to have led the group in Zamboanga.
Western Mindanao University professor and peace advocate Grace Rebollos told reporters in Manila yesterday, that the government must learn new ways of handling rebellion in the part of the country where Muslim tribal norms were upheld. She said Malik’s status as an “ustadz” or teacher of Islam was significant.
“So that when one is pushed to the wall and he reacts in a way that vanquishes him or her, then that becomes a martyr. That becomes a hero. And when that becomes a martyr or a hero and it’s given religious undertones, then you’re seeing certain backlashes from the communities that these people used to handle,” said Rebollos.
Muslim rebels and government have been fighting for four decades in a conflict that has left more than 150,000 people dead. In 1996, Misuari signed a peace agreement with the Philippines, which created an autonomous Muslim region in the south. But he took up the fight again in 2001, saying government did not hold to the terms.
Right now, the Philippine government and the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front are in the final stages of a peace pact. Misuari has expressed misgivings about this pact, which would effectively replace the autonomous region with a new self-governing area.
Zamboanga City officials say more than 10,000 homes were burned to the ground in the five neighborhoods where skirmishes took place. At the height of the clashes, close to 120,000 residents fled their homes and officials are now scrambling to provide humanitarian assistance to scores of thousands of people in evacuation centers. The city, a major commerce hub, also suffered economic losses in the millions of dollars daily because of the conflict.