Flights to the Philippines’ southern city of Zamboanga are scheduled to resume tomorrow as government troops continue to clear areas occupied by Muslim rebels in a conflict that has killed more than 100 people.
About 75 Moro National Liberation Front fighters remain in Zamboanga, where soldiers have recaptured 70 percent of seized territory since the conflict began on Sept. 9, military spokesman Brigadier General Domingo Tutaan said at a briefing in Manila today. “It’s still a calibrated response,” he said, adding that the firefight had receded.
The violence comes as President Benigno Aquino boosts strategic ties with the U.S. and Japan amid a territorial spat with China over areas in the South China Sea. About 2,300 Filipino and U.S. soldiers will hold joint exercises for three weeks starting today in the northern Philippines, while two Japanese warships moored at the weekend in the port in Manila.
The U.S. and the Philippines next month will hold the fourth and final round of talks on increasing the presence of American troops and military equipment in the Philippines, Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino said at a briefing today. While the troop presence will be temporary, the U.S. will be allowed to build structures in the country as long as they benefit the Philippine military, Batino said.
Challenge to Aquino
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 the island of Mindanao. Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said the government is considering bringing charges against rebels who led the siege, the biggest security threat to Aquino’s administration since he took office in 2010.
“We’re closing in,” Tutaan said, adding that there are still “pockets of resistance” from the remaining group of rebels who are still holding an undetermined number of hostages.
Eighty-six fighters, along with 14 soldiers and policemen and seven civilians have been killed, while 152 hostages have been released or rescued, he said. More than 93,000 people have fled their homes in the area, Adrian Fuego, an Office of Civil Defense director, said by phone today.
“There will always be the aftermath of the clashes even if you kill a lot of the MNLF forces,” Prospero de Vera, a public administration professor at the University of the Philippines, said by phone today. “This will always rear its ugly head down the line.”
With the violence easing, the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines allowed Philippine Airlines Inc. and Cebu Air Inc. to resume flights. The two carriers will be permitted one round-trip flight each to and from Zamboanga starting tomorrow, Deputy Director John Andrews said in a mobile-phone message today.
“The Zamboanga incident illustrates just how difficult it is to restore peace in Mindanao,” Steven Rood, country representative for the Asia Foundation, said by phone 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 negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, ended on Sept. 14 in Manila, Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement yesterday. The two sides “looked forward to a final peace agreement to be concluded in the near future,” the ministry said in the statement.
Decades of violence between separatists and government forces in Mindanao have left about 200,000 people dead and stifled development on the island, where per capita gross domestic product is about a quarter of the national average.
Still, “I don’t think the protracted situation there will cause economic dislocation,” Budget Secretary Butch Abad said in Manila yesterday. “It will not be substantial enough to dent the economic climate.”
The Philippine Stock Exchange Index has risen 5.6 percent since Sept. 9.