Philippine Troops Gain Ground Against Separatist Rebels in Zamboanga

Area of clashes contained, but heavy fighting continues, displacing 70,000 people

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Erik De Castro / Reuters

Philippine marines are aboard a truck as they block a road during fighting between government soldiers and Moro National Liberation Front rebels in Zamboanga, the Philippines, on Sept. 15, 2013

Philippine troops gained ground in Zamboanga, containing the fight against Moro rebels to two districts, as the standoff entered its eighth day on Monday. After a morning of heavy gunfire, and plumes of black smoke rising from buildings set ablaze, a helicopter assault was launched against the rebels’ positions.

Many hostages either were released or escaped during the weekend, but the rebels still hold several civilians. According to a military spokesman, 51 rebels have been killed and 48 captured during the struggle, which now involves around 3,000 government troops.

The clashes started last Monday, when a dozen boats loaded with armed members of the separatist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) ran into a navy vessel outside the southern city of Zamboanga. Fighting spread to six districts in the town and also erupted on the nearby island of Basilan.

Currently, 70,000 civilians have been evacuated from their homes in Zamboanga. Their access to food and medical care is scarce, and many will have no home to return to once the clashes come to an end. According to Mayor Isabelle Climaco-Salazar, at least 1,000 structures have been razed in the past week.

The MNLF cadres are followers of Nur Misuari, the instigator of the modern armed struggle for an independent Muslim nation in the southern Philippines.

Misuari has previously expressed his disappointment with the peace accord that was brokered last year between the rival separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the government. However, he has publicly disowned the commanders involved in the current attack.

President Benigno Aquino III of the Philippines has remained in Zamboanga since Friday and expressed his determination to resolve the crisis by all means necessary.

MORE: The Background on the Conflict in Southern Philippines