Philippine Death Toll Rises to 62 in Siege as Locals Flee

The Philippines launched air strikes against Muslim rebels as President Benigno Aquino sought to bring an end to a week-long standoff that has killed 62 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. Two helicopters fired three rockets between 1 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. yesterday with forces on the ground checking on casualties among Moro National Liberation Front members, another military spokesman, Captain Jefferson Somera, said in a mobile-phone message.

Fifty-one MNLF fighters have died in clashes on Mindanao Island, while 63 rebels have surrendered or been captured and 183 people are held hostage, the Armed Forces of the Philippines said in a statement yesterday. More than 67,000 people have fled their homes in the city of Zamboanga where rebels are holed up, 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.

Walk Away

“Aquino seems to be not 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.”

Six policemen and soldiers and five villagers have been killed in fighting that started Sept. 9 when government 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, GMA News reported on its website.

The army has taken control of about 70 percent of the conflict zone, Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said at a briefing on ABS-CBN News Channel yesterday. Two explosions went off yesterday near movie theaters in the city of Davao, about 630 kilometers (391 miles) east of Zamboanga, wounding five people, Davao police director Senior Superintendent Ronald dela Rosa said in a mobile-phone message today.

U.S. Relief

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.

The rebels torched hundreds of homes and a team of prosecutors is preparing charges against members of the MNLF, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said at the same briefing.

Zamboanga’s airport will remain closed until Sept. 21, Cebu Air Inc. said in a statement, citing a decision by the Civil Aviation Authority.

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 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.