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ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AFP) – Philippine troops were Sunday closing in on Muslim rebel positions and cutting off escape routes to end a week-long standoff that has left more than 60 people dead in the southern city of Zamboanga, officials said.
Thousands more residents have fled, while sporadic clashes continued as soldiers moved to clear Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) gunmen from coastal neighbourhoods after a ceasefire plan collapsed.
"We are continuing to press forward with our calibrated military response," military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala told AFP.
"Fighting is continuing as we speak. They continue to resist and conduct offensive actions against us."
Heavily armed MNLF forces entered the port city's coastal neighbourhoods Monday and took dozens of hostages in a bid to scupper peace talks between another militant group and the government aimed at ending a decades-long rebellion in the south.
But Zagala said the fighting was concentrated in two coastal districts, while other areas were now secure.
Day and night operations by at least 3,000 elite government troops have now seen 51 MNLF rebels killed, as well as six soldiers, a policemen and four civilians.
Air and sea ports remained closed Sunday in a crisis that has paralysed the city of one million, seen entire neigbourhoods razed to the ground, and forced tens of thousands to flee.
Police on Saturday estimated that the gunmen were holding as few as seven civilian hostages, compared to more than 100 a day earlier, with many either escaping or being allowed to go free.
Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said the number of people who had fled to temporary shelters had risen to more than 69,000 by Sunday morning.
"The number swelled yesterday because thousands more evacuated from areas the rebels were likely to use as escape routes," she told AFP.
"We hope they will be able to go home in the coming week," she said, while stressing that it was too early to say if the fighting would be over by then.
A ceasefire plan brokered by Vice President Jejomar Binay and MNLF leader Nur Misuari was abandoned Saturday after the two sides failed to agree terms.
The MNLF waged a 25-year guerrilla war for independence before signing a peace treaty in 1996 that granted limited self-rule to the south's Muslim minority.
Misuari, who has accused the government of violating the terms of a 1996 treaty by negotiating a separate deal with a rival faction, had disappeared from public view shortly before the fighting began Monday.
The rival faction, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), is in the final stages of peace talks with Manila and is expected to take over an expanded autonomous Muslim region in the south by 2016.
President Benigno Aquino said the peace talks with the MILF aimed to end decades of rebellion that had claimed 150,000 lives in the country's Muslim southern regions.