Filipino troops kill 7 rebels after hostage crisis
MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine troops killed seven more Muslim rebels in gunbattles in the coastal outskirts of a southern city they were clearing of bodies, bombs, weapons and possible booby traps following a three-week standoff with insurgents who held scores of people hostage, officials said Sunday.
Army troops and special police forces killed six Moro National Liberation Front rebels who were hiding in a house in Zamboanga city’s Santa Barbara community Sunday and refused to surrender. Another rebel was slain by troops in a clash Saturday in nearby Rio Hondo, one of five communities occupied by nearly 500 insurgents on Sept. 9, military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said.
Troops recovered seven assault rifles and a grenade launcher used by the slain rebels, he said.
“Definitely the worst is over,” Zagala told reporters, but added that it would be dangerous for residents to return until government forces have finished a two-week inspection of the battered communities.
Defense and military officials declared the rebel standoff and hostage crisis over Saturday, saying 195 residents seized by the rebels as human shields had been rescued safely, escaped or were freed. More than 4,000 troops and police killed 190 rebels, while 292 other insurgents were either captured or surrendered out of exhaustion and after running out of food and ammunition.
While troops remained as a backup force, police took charge Sunday of the house-to-house inspections in search of any more rebel holdouts and the dangerous leftovers from the standoff, which paralyzed the port city of nearly a million people.
Mayor Isabelle Climaco-Salazar said Zamboanga’s city hall would be reopened Monday. A tribute will be given to the 18 soldiers, five police officers and about a dozen civilians who died in the rebel siege in the bustling port, which has crawled back to life after the fierce clashes that displaced about 130,000 people — more than a tenth of the city’s population.
Zamboanga officials were working on a plan to rebuild hard-hit communities, where nearly 10,000 houses were burned by the rebels or got destroyed in the fighting. Officials will have to continue feeding and tending to tens of thousands of displaced residents who remained in 32 emergency shelters and have to be relocated to temporary settlements at some point, Climaco-Salazar said.
Authorities were trying to determine whether Habier Malik, the most prominent of seven rebel commanders who led the siege, was dead. Troops found Malik’s rebel identification card in one of the clothes of a slain rebel who resembled him, sparking speculation that he may have been killed.
A military official, however, said the slain rebel was Malik’s aide, who also kept his international driver’s license and temporary resident’s certificate in Saudi Arabia, where the rebel commander once lived with his wife. The official, who was involved in efforts to identify the slain rebels, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
President Benigno Aquino III ordered an offensive that began on Sept. 13 after the rebels refused to surrender and free their hostages.
The rebel faction involved in the fighting dropped its demand for a separate Muslim state and signed an autonomy deal with the government 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.
The faction’s leader, Nur Misuari, has not surfaced since the siege began, but will be prosecuted along with captured guerrillas for rebellion and violating international humanitarian laws that forbid the taking civilians hostage for use as human shields, according to government prosecutors.