Philippine forces free dozens of hostages in besieged city

Government troops say they recaptured large swath of rebel-occupied area

Hostages are freed following an assault by the military on MNLF rebels are escorted by soldiers in Zamboanga.
Ted Aljibe/Getty Images

Philippine government troops said they have rescued 116 hostages and recaptured 70 percent of the areas in the southern city of Zamboanga that had been occupied by the heavily-armed fighters.

The Zamboanga police chief was abducted earlier Tuesday by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) during clashes with the rebels, Al Jazeera's Jamela Alindogan reported. The police chief was later released.

The Muslim rebel group, which occupied five coastal villages, has been fighting for an autonomous homeland in the southern part of the predominantly Catholic country. 

Troops and special police forces have killed or arrested more than 100 MNLF rebels after the military foiled what officials said was an attempt to take Zamboanga city hall on Sept. 8.

The rebels initially took hundreds of hostages and burned hundreds of homes, forcing a shut down of Zamboanga, a city of about 1 million that is a key commercial hub in the region. 

Helicopter gunships were deployed for the first time by the government Monday as the hostage standoff entered its ninth day. About 100 rebels remain holed up with hostages.

The Philippine government said more than 100 hostages were rescued Monday morning and three soldiers were killed. The total number of hostages held by MNLF fighters was still unknown. 

The helicopter assaults were the first airstrikes since troops began an offensive Friday against the MNLF, who have been using civilians as human shields.

Armed forces spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala told reporters the army had killed 34 rebels in the past 24 hours. 

"Our forces continue to press on and push them out of the city ... We will finish this problem at the soonest possible time," Zagala said. "The fighting is not over yet."

The MNLF attack is seen as an attempt to sabotage talks between rival rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and the government aimed at ending decades of conflict.

Al Jazeera and wire services 

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