The Philippines launched air strikes against Muslim rebels as President Benigno Aquino sought to bring an end to a standoff that has killed 87 people and complicated efforts to bring peace to the south.
“We are gaining ground as far as our calibrated response is concerned,” military spokesman Brigadier General Domingo Tutaan told reporters in Manila yesterday, about an hour before helicopters fired three rockets on rebel positions in the city of Zamboanga on Mindanao Island.
Seventy-one Moro National Liberation Front fighters have died in the clashes, and 64 have surrendered or been captured, military spokesman Major Angelo Guzman said in a mobile-phone message. More than 67,000 people have fled their homes with rebels still holding 94 hostages, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council said on its website, in what has become Aquino’s biggest security crisis since he took office in 2010.
Aquino is under pressure to end the standoff in Mindanao, a resource-rich region where four decades of insurgency have killed about 200,000 people and stifled development. The violence complicates peace talks the government is holding in Malaysia with another rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which signed a wealth-sharing agreement in July.
“Aquino seems not to be in the mood to allow these men to simply walk away because doing so might send the wrong signal and embolden other groups,” Ramon Casiple, executive director at the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila, said by phone. “The government is using force to end the crisis. They must minimize civilian casualty or the fallout could undermine the peace process.”
Nine policemen and soldiers and seven villagers have been killed in fighting that started Sept. 9 when troops blocked rebels from hoisting their flag at Zamboanga’s city hall. Aquino warned last week he would deploy the “full force of the state” if needed to protect civilians. He remains in the city.
The army has taken control of about 70 percent of the conflict zone, Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala, a spokesman for the armed forces, said at a briefing aired on ABS-CBN television yesterday.
The rebels torched hundreds of homes and a team of prosecutors is preparing charges against some of them, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said at the same briefing. Twenty houses were destroyed and five partially damaged, the disaster monitoring agency said.
Mindanao has mineral deposits worth an estimated $312 billion. The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao had a per-capita gross domestic product of 26,004 pesos ($595) in 2011, about a fourth of the national average and the lowest among 17 regions, according to the National Statistical Coordination Board.
The government will ensure the views of the MNLF and its founder Nur Misuari are considered during the crafting of a law to create a new autonomous region, Teresita Deles, Aquino’s adviser on the peace process, told reporters on Sept. 11.
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