The Philippine military rescued dozens of hostages as it pushed back Muslim rebels whose attacks in the country’s south posed President Benigno Aquino’s biggest security threat since he took office three years ago.
The military recaptured 70 percent of the territory seized by Moro National Liberation Front fighters since they began an offensive in the southern city of Zamboanga Sept. 9, military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said in a statement.
Aquino is under pressure to end the standoff, which has complicated efforts to conclude a peace deal with a separate group of rebels after a four-decade insurgency on Mindanao. That insurgency killed about 200,000 people and has stifled development on the island, where per capita gross domestic product is about a quarter the national average.
“The Zamboanga incident illustrates just how difficult it is to restore peace in Mindanao after four decades of war,” Steven Rood, country representative for the Asia Foundation, said in a telephone interview in Manila. “There are so many different groupings that over the years have had injustices visited upon them or grievances that haven’t been addressed.”
Two days of talks between Aquino’s government and Malaysia, which is facilitating peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, ended Sept. 14 in Manila, Malaysia’s foreign ministry said in a statement today. The two sides “looked forward to a final peace agreement to be concluded in the near future,” Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The Philippine military says 72 rebels, along with 11 government troops and policemen and seven civilians, have been killed in the fighting. Of an estimated 183 hostages held by the rebels, 150 have been released or rescued, and 14 escaped, the military said.
Rebels abducted Senior Superintendent Chiquito Malayo near the town of Arena Blanco at 10 a.m. today, police logistics chief Senior Superintendent Edwin de Ocampo said by phone. Malayo was taken while inspecting an area that had seen clashes between government forces and the insurgents, he said.
Malayo later convinced his 23 captors to release him and surrender, Zamboanga police director Chief Superintendent Juanito Vano said in a phone interview.
The military launched air strikes from helicopters yesterday. More than 67,000 people have fled from their homes in Zamboanga where rebels are holed up, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council said on its website. The Philippine Stock Exchange Index has advanced 5.8 percent since Sept. 9.
“I don’t think the protracted situation there will cause economic dislocation,” Budget Secretary Butch Abad said in Manila today. “It will not be substantial enough to dent the economic climate.”
The U.S. designated 26.4 million pesos ($603,000) for relief to Zamboanga, the U.S. Embassy in Manila said in a Sept. 12 statement. Delivery was coordinated by the Philippine military and police, with help from the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, according to the statement.