Manila (AFP) – Philippine officials said Saturday they believed that all hostages held by Muslim gunmen during a nearly three-week battle in a city in the south of the country were now free.
A total of 195 hostages had either escaped, been rescued or released by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) gunmen who entered Zamboanga, according to the latest military tally.
"The indications are that they are no longer holding any hostages," military spokesman Brigadier-General Domingo Tutaan told reporters in Manila.
Abigail Valte, a spokeswoman for President Benigno Aquino, 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.
However, Tutaan stressed that the military campaign was not yet over, with rebel gunmen still hiding out in several city districts, which have seen some of the fiercest street battles in the Philippines in years.
"There are only a few of them left," he said. However, "if there is even one gunman left, he can still shoot and kill people".
He declined to give a timetable for ending the fighting.
The military said at least 166 MNLF gunmen had been killed in 19 days of fighting that also claimed the lives of 23 soldiers and policemen as well as 12 civilians.
Meanwhile, 238 guerrillas were in custody and facing charges of rebellion and violations of international humanitarian law.
However, the whereabouts of Habier Malik, the MNLF guerrilla leader believed to have led the gunmen, as well as MNLF founder Nur Misuari, the alleged mastermind, were still unknown.
The military said Misuari had sent Malik and hundreds of armed followers to Zamboanga three weeks ago in a bid to derail peace talks with a rival Muslim rebel group.
More than 10,000 homes were razed to the ground in the ensuing street battles, forcing more than 100,000 people -- or around a 10th of the city's population -- to flee.
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.