Philippines says weekslong rebel standoff has ended, city in shambles

Authorities are trying to determine if rebel commander is dead after hostages were freed, rescued or escaped

A Philippine flag flutters Friday next to bullet-riddled houses damaged by fire at the site of heavy fighting in the standoff between government forces and Moro National Liberation Front rebels in Zamboanga.
STR/AFP/Getty Images

A deadly three-week standoff between government troops and Muslim rebels who held nearly 200 people hostage in the southern Philippines has ended with all of the captives safe, the country's Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, said Saturday.

Gazmin said only a handful of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels remained in hiding and were being hunted by troops in the coastal outskirts of Zamboanga city, about 540 miles south of Manila, adding that authorities were trying to determine if rebel commander Habier Malik, who led the Sept. 9 siege, was dead.

More than 200 people were killed in the clashes, including 183 rebels and 23 soldiers and police, in one of the bloodiest and longest-running attacks by a Muslim group in the south, where a Muslim rebellion for self-rule in the largely Roman Catholic country has persisted for decades.

"I can say that the crisis is over. We have accomplished the mission," Gazmin told The Associated Press by telephone from Zamboanga, where he helped oversee a government offensive and hostage rescue mission by about 4,500 government troops and police.

Gazmin said 195 hostages were rescued, escaped or were freed.

The gunbattles, including exchanges of grenade and mortar fire, forced about 130,000 residents — more than 10 percent of the population of the bustling port city — to flee their homes to emergency shelters, including Zamboanga's main sports complex. About 10,000 houses were burned by the rebels or destroyed in the fighting, according to a military report.

See photos at that start of the rebel hostage crisis

Cornered by a far larger number of government troops, the rebels sought help from their comrades from nearby provinces but guerrilla reinforcements were driven back, Gazmin said.

Police and troops still have to clear areas of the dangerous leftovers of the fighting, including unexploded bombs and possible booby traps, Gazmin said.

Gazmin, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas and military chief of staff Gen. Emmanuel Bautista briefly toured the scene of the most intense gunbattles Saturday in Zamboanga's Santa Catalina community, where nearly 100 rebels perished in clashes and is now a wasteland. Army soldiers, who have been collecting bodies of guerrillas in Santa Catalina had to wear gas masks because of the stench.

All the houses in the vast community were either burned by the rebels in daily infernos or damaged by gunfire and mortar blasts. Atop a bullet-peppered building, troops raised a Philippine flag at half-staff.

The siege in Zamboanga began when heavily armed insurgents arrived by boat from outlying islands but were blocked by troops and policemen, who discovered what authorities said was a rebel plan to occupy and hoist their flag at Zamboanga's city hall. The rebels then stormed five coastal communities and took residents hostage and were surrounded by troops.

President Benigno Aquino III, who flew to Zamboanga, ordered an offensive that began on Sept. 13 after the rebels refused to surrender and free their hostages.

MNLF, the rebel faction involved in the fighting, in 1996 dropped its demand for a separate Muslim state and signed an autonomy deal (PDF) with the government, 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.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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