Philippine Hostages Freed as Military Battles Rebels

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 on Sept. 9, military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said in a statement yesterday.

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. The violence comes as Aquino boosts strategic ties with the U.S. and Japan amid a territorial spat with China over 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 at the port in Manila.

“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.”

Peace Talks

Two days of talks between Aquino’s government and Malaysia, which is facilitating peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, ended 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.

The Philippine military says 72 rebels, along with 11 government troops and policemen and seven civilians, have been killed in the recent fighting in the south. 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 yesterday. Malayo later convinced his 23 captors to release him and surrender, Zamboanga police director Chief Superintendent Juanito Vano said by phone.

The military launched air strikes from helicopters Sept. 16. More than 70,000 people are staying in evacuation centers after fleeing their homes in the area, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council said in its latest update published on its website yesterday.

Stifled Development

Decades of insurgency in Mindanao has left about 200,000 people dead and has 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 5.7 percent since Sept. 9.

Filipino and U.S. soldiers will undergo air, ground and amphibious training during their drills, the Philippine Marine Corps said in a statement yesterday. Two Japanese warships were at the port of Manila from Sept. 15 to Sept. 17 for reprovisioning before heading to Japan, the Philippine Navy said in a statement.

The U.S. and the Philippines on Sept. 13 held the third of four rounds of talks on increasing the rotational presence of American troops and military equipment in the Philippines. In July, the Southeast Asian nation also agreed to boost maritime cooperation with Japan during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Manila.

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.

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