MANILA— In the southern Philippines, at least 55 people have died and more than 65,000 people have fled their homes while scores of hostages remain in the hands of Muslim rebels. Clashes between government forces and members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) have intensified as they entered the seventh day.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines say troops are stepping up their fight in the major port city of Zamboanga against about 200 members of the MNLF.
Armed Forces spokesman, Brigadier General Domingo Tutaan, says the military along with police forces are now carrying out a “calibrated” offensive. But he did not give details of what the measured tactic entails.
“It’s not just simply firing at the enemy, so to speak. We have to make sure that these civilians who are held against their will and are used as human shields are not caught in the crossfire,” says Tutaan.
The spokesman added that the rebels are “continuously bringing civilians in harm’s way” with mortar and sniper fire.
Fighting started early Monday morning when the military says it interceded after it learned armed members of an MNLF faction tried to enter Zamboanga to raise a separatist flag at city hall. A faction spokesman has said they wanted to hold a peace rally to drum up support for the creation of an Islamic republic. The military repelled the rebels, who they say took civilians for cover and kept them isolated to five coastal villages on the fringes of Zamboanga.
Philippine Vice President Jejomar Binay tried to broker a cease-fire with MNLF faction leader Nur Misuari, who is believed to be behind this incident.
The truce was expected to take effect Saturday. But the attempt failed as top officials on the ground noted continuous firing from the rebels. Government forces have since intensified their offensive, taking back certain MNLF-held locations in the villages, according to the military.
President Benigno Aquino has been in Zamboanga to head up crisis management efforts. He told thousands of evacuees the conflict would end at the “soonest possible time.”
A city under siege
Zamboanga City Executive Secretary Michael Saavedra says the city is trying to get back to normal.
“Some parts of the city, like the downtown, for example, [are] still a ‘ghost city.’ But the suburbs for example, [are] already- it’s not normal but you see people going around,” says Saavedra.
Saavedra says five banks away from the fighting hotspots agreed to open Sunday after shutting their doors when the fighting started. Zamboanga City closed schools and canceled work at most government offices, while flights to and from the area remain grounded.
Saavedra says the city is caught in the middle of a national peace and order issue.
The MNLF signed a peace pact with the Philippines in 1996, but in recent months it has raised concerns that government has not held up to the terms.
The government is currently negotiating the final stages of a peace agreement with a larger Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. And the MNLF has expressed displeasure at this new agreement, which would effectively replace an autonomous Muslim region that was formed under terms of the 1996 pact.