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Filipino troops retake 70% of rebel-seized coastal areas

Philippine troops have recaptured 70 percent of the coastal areas of a southern city that were occupied by Muslim rebels and rescued 116 civilians held hostage in a nine-day standoff, the military said Tuesday.

About 64 hostages were freed or escaped during military operations early Tuesday, followed by 14 who walked to freedom in separate batches. That brought to 116 the number of those rescued in the past 18 hours, said Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, a military spokesman.

He said more than 100 Moro National Liberation Front rebels were still holding other hostages in the remaining pockets they controlled in five coastal villages in Zamboanga city. The government initially said more than 180 people were being held, but Zagala said the exact number was unclear.

Three soldiers were killed and 10 wounded Tuesday in the latest fighting in Zamboanga city, which followed a day of military airstrikes on rebel positions. That brings the death toll on the government side to 12 — nine soldiers and three police officers.

Troops and special police forces have killed or arrested more than 100 of the Moro rebels, who occupied five villages after government forces foiled what officials said was an attempt by the heavily armed insurgents to seize the Zamboanga city hall on Sept. 8.

Seven civilians have been killed in the fighting.

Troops have tried to contain the clashes on the edges of Zamboanga, a largely Christian city of nearly 1 million people, but suspected rebel mortar fire destroyed a car near downtown Monday, raising fears the gunmen were trying to divert the military’s attention.

Nearly 82,000 residents have fled the fighting into several emergency shelters, including the city’s main sports complex.

Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said about 850 houses had been destroyed amid fierce exchanges of gunfire and occasional bursts of mortar rounds and grenades. Police said some fires may have been set by rebels to cover their escapes.

President Benigno Aquino III is in Zamboanga, a bustling port 540 miles south of Manila, to oversee the handling of the worst security crisis his administration has faced since he came to power in 2010.

The Moro insurgents, led by Nur Misuari, signed a peace deal in 1996, but the guerrillas did not lay down their arms and later accused the government of reneging on a promise to develop long-
neglected Muslim regions in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation.

— Associated Press


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