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Death Toll Jumps in Philippine Standoff as 64 Hostages Rescued

Government soldiers escort residents who were taken hostage and used as human shields by Muslim rebels of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) during fighting with government soldiers, in Zamboanga city in southern Philippines, Sept. 17, 2013.
The Philippine military says the death toll in the more than week-long standoff with a Muslim rebel faction in the country’s south has surged to at least 90 people. More than a week of fighting has killed 72 rebels, 11 security forces and seven civilians, and displaced nearly 82,000 people. But on Tuesday authorities said they had rescued more than five dozen hostages and recaptured more than two thirds of the territory occupied by the rebels.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines says it helped 64 people escape to their freedom in an overnight operation that started Monday evening on the outskirts of Zamboanga.

Armed Forces spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said they succeeded because troops were closely trailing members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

“For the very reason that as we approached and we were already gaining ground, they were able to come out. We were able to get them from the danger area and bring them to the rear,” said Zagala.

Zagala said the hostages were immediately turned over to authorities who would then determine whether there were any rebel faction members among them. Earlier in the conflict, a few dozen others escaped or were released by the rebels bringing the number of freed hostages now to more than 100.

The military said it has taken back 70 percent of areas that the MNLF had infiltrated, and used some air strikes to flush out rebels from coastal villages on the fringes of Zamboanga.

Philippines President Benigno Aquino continues to oversee crisis management operations in Zamboanga and several cabinet members are seeing to security and social service concerns.

The Zamboanga rebellion is a blow for President Aquino’s efforts to forge peace deals with rebel factions in the restive south.

In 1996, the MNLF led by then chairman Nur Misuari, who is believed to be behind the faction in Zamboanga, signed a peace agreement with the Philippines. The terms included the creation of an autonomous Muslim region.

Now, the government is in the final stages of crafting a peace deal with the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which broke away from the MNLF. And that deal effectively replaces the autonomous region with a new self-governing region.

Asia Foundation Country Representative Steven Rood said the pact with the MILF will move forward, but the Philippine government should pay attention to and learn from the situation in Zamboanga. “It’s a reminder that we need to be inclusive, that we need any peace process to try to have as many elements on board because those who feel marginalized, those who feel left out, can indeed, inflict trouble,” he said.

The government says it wants input from the factions of the MNLF on the proposed law that would set up the new region under the MILF agreement.