ZAMBOANGA (Philippines), Sept 16: Philippine troops aboard helicopters fired rockets on Monday at Muslim rebels occupying parts of a major city, intensifying efforts to end an eight-day standoff that has left dozens dead.
The military said it was close to defeating the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) forces, who invaded southern Zamboanga city in a bid to derail a rival rebel group’s planned peace pact with the government. “We know for a fact that the end is near and they are trying to flee,” military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said shortly before the helicopter assault was launched.
Two air force helicopters fired rockets towards the MNLF rebels held up in and around two coastal villages, the first air strikes since the military began its offensive on Friday. About 200 rebels initially took dozens of hostages and burned hundreds of homes, forcing a shut down of Zamboanga, a city of about one million that is a key commercial hub in the region.
Zagala said there were only about 100 MNLF forces left, after dozens were caught and others fled, while key rebel-held areas had been over-run. But the remaining gunmen were hiding among civilians and Zagala acknowledged the rebels were believed to still be holding some locals as human shields.
Asked about the potential for the civilians to be caught up in the helicopter assaults, Zagala emphasised they were “precision” strikes. Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the growing dangers for civilians, four of whom had been killed in earlier stages of the conflict.
“This definitely raises the level of danger for civilians in the area,” Carlos Conde, the Philippine representative for the New York-based watchdog, said.
“These are residential areas, how would they (soldiers) know which house or area to target? I don’t think they would have that precise information.” Fifty-one MNLF fighters and six security forces, as well as the four civilians, have died during the standoff, according to Zagala.—AFP