Hopes fade as fighting intensifies in Philippine city
The six-day standoff with the rebels in one of the most vibrant trading cities in the southern Philippines is believed to have left at least 56 people dead and displaced more than 60,000 people, officials said.
The New York Times
MANILA, Philippines — Fighting intensified in the southern Philippine city of Zamboanga on Saturday as hopes for a quick cease-fire with Muslim rebels evaporated amid some of the most serious violence to strike the troubled region in years.
The six-day standoff with the rebels in one of the most vibrant trading cities in the southern Philippines is believed to have left at least 56 people dead and displaced more than 62,000 people, officials said Saturday. It has also raised fears of a setback in the government’s efforts, backed by the United States, to calm insurgencies and fight terrorism.
The government says most of the dead are rebels fighting government troops. The forces are firing mortars and battling street by street to take back several seaside neighborhoods from the militants.
The situation is serious enough that the country’s top civilian and military leaders have traveled to the city, despite the mayhem, to plan their strategy. President Benigno Aquino III arrived Friday, with one of his escort helicopters taking small-arms fire as he landed, to coordinate the government’s response. The crisis has crippled the once peaceful city, a mostly Christian enclave on Mindanao island in the mostly Muslim south.
There are conflicting reports about how the standoff began Monday. The police say several hundred armed men from the Moro National Liberation Front landed by boat in Zamboanga and tried to raise their flag over City Hall and declare independence from the national government. When police and the military tried to stop them, the police said, the insurgents took hostages and retreated to the city’s Muslim slums.
Rebel leaders said their march to City Hall was peaceful, and that they were attacked by the military.
Since then, government officials said they have worked hard to evacuate civilians in the area, but it remains unclear how many hostages are being held.
Hopes for a cease-fire briefly emerged Saturday when the vice president — a political rival of Aquino’s — announced an informal truce with the rebels. But the fighting never let up, and the president’s aides have since said that the administration will coordinate the military actions and any efforts to engage the rebels in talks. At a televised news conference later Saturday, the government did not answer questions about whether it was trying to negotiate with the militants.
The violence comes less than a year after Aquino achieved relative peace in the region by winning a deal with a much larger rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The various insurgencies in the region are driven in large part by beliefs by Muslims that they are left out of economic development by the Christian-dominated national government.
On Saturday, Zamboanga’s mayor, Beng Climaco, said during the news conference that she had turned over management of the crisis to national officials.
“The spate of events that unfolded and continue to unfold are very heartbreaking and upsetting,” she said.
In addition to Aquino, attendees at Saturday’s planning session included Vice President Jejomar Binay; the secretary of national defense, Voltaire Gazmin; and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas.
Roxas said after the meeting that the military’s plan had been to contain the rebels to the affected neighborhoods and prevent the violence from spreading to other parts of the city. That has been accomplished, he said, and though he declined to offer details, he said the military was trying to clear the rebels out of the neighborhoods they were holding.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.