ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AFP) – Philippine soldiers pursued heavily armed Muslim rebels through the streets and homes of a major city Wednesday, warning they would be killed or captured unless they surrendered.
About 200 members of the Moro National Liberation Front sailed into the southern port city of Zamboanga on September 9 to stake an independence claim and derail peace talks aimed at ending a decades-long insurgency.
Eighty-six MNLF gunmen, as well as 14 security forces and four civilians have died in the ensuing conflict, which has seen street battles in neighbourhoods occupied by the rebels as well as military helicopter rocket attacks.
Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said fresh fighting took place Wednesday, and soldiers had orders to "neutralise" the remaining 30-40 rebels, who were roaming through houses in urban areas.
"We will continue with our calibrated military response until they are neutralised, either through being killed or captured, or they surrender," he told AFP.
"We want to let them know there is no dishonour in surrendering, when that saves lives."
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 President Benigno Aquino rejected the condition.
Zagala emphasised the military was intent on not allowing the remaining rebels to escape, with troops blocking strategic routes out to sea.
Nevertheless, he said the military could not conduct a full-out assault against the rebels for fear of endangering civilians ensnared in the conflict.
"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 were believed to be holding as many as 21 hostages, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas told reporters in Zamboanga, as he outlined operations to flush the insurgents out of the communities.
"We are now at the stage of clearing operations... we are going from house to house, block to block. Houses are built close together, the streets are narrow," Roxas said.
"We have to ensure that there are no more fighters there and that no booby traps were left behind."
The rebels have shown no intent to surrender despite being heavily outnumbered, with the military reporting that two more soldiers were killed on Tuesday.
Those deaths occurred as the military achieved one of its biggest breakthroughs, securing the release of more than 140 civilians after taking back control of some neighbourhoods.
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.
Muslims regard the southern Mindanao region as their ancestral homeland, although Catholic immigration and population increases over recent decades has made them a minority in many areas.
The MNLF signed a peace treaty in 1996 that granted limited self-rule to the south's Muslim minority.
However MNLF troops never gave up all their weapons, as they had agreed, and they have proved an enduring if sporadic security threat in parts of the south.
Misuari deployed his men to Zamboanga to show opposition to a planned peace deal between the government and the remaining major Muslim rebel group, the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The MILF is close to signing the peace pact, which Misuari believes would sideline the MNLF.
One of the main points of contention is the envisaged creation of a new autonomous Muslim political and economic entity for the southern Philippines, to replace the one created under the MNLF-brokered deal in 1996.
The rival MILF would have most control of the new autonomous region and the potential riches on offer if large mineral deposits and the area's fertile farming regions are exploited.