Philippines targets rebels in chopper assault
By Teodoro Aljibe, AFPZAMBOANGA, Philippines--Philippine troops aboard helicopters fired rockets on Monday at Muslim rebels occupying parts of a major city, intensifying efforts to end an eight-day standoff that has left dozens dead.
September 17, 2013, 12:08 am TWN
The military said it was close to defeating the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) forces, who invaded southern Zamboanga city in a bid to derail a rival rebel group's planned peace pact with the government.
“We know for a fact that the end is near and they are trying to flee,” military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala told AFP shortly before the helicopter assault was launched.
Two air force helicopters fired rockets towards the MNLF rebels held up in and around two coastal villages, the first air strikes since the military began its offensive on Friday.
About 200 rebels initially took dozens of hostages and burned hundreds of homes, forcing a shut down of Zamboanga, a city of about 1 million that is a key commercial hub in the region.
Zagala said there were only about 100 MNLF forces left, after dozens were caught and others fled, while key rebel-held areas had been over-run.
But the remaining gunmen were hiding among civilians and Zagala acknowledged the rebels were believed to still be holding some locals as human shields.
Asked about the potential for the civilians to be caught up in the helicopter assaults, Zagala emphasized they were “precision” strikes.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the growing dangers for civilians, four of whom had been killed in earlier stages of the conflict.
“This definitely raises the level of danger for civilians in the area,” Carlos Conde, the Philippine representative for the New York-based watchdog, told AFP from Zamboanga.
“These are residential areas, how would they (soldiers) know which house or area to target? I don't think they would have that precise information.”
Fifty-one MNLF fighters and six security forces, as well as the four civilians, have died during the standoff, according to Zagala.
One of the civilians who died was a two-year-old baby who had been taken hostage and was shot in the head, Zamboanga mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco Salazar told reporters, without identifying who fired the bullet.
Nearly 70,000 other civilians have fled the fighting, however many other people are believed to be trapped inside the conflict zones.
As many as 300 civilians in one village had sought shelter in an ice-making plant building after abandoning their homes, while others had stayed behind to protect their belongings, according to Human Rights Watch.
Zagala said on Monday morning the remaining MNLF rebels were engaged in ground battles with troops around two coastal villages, and had proved defiant in the face of the military advance.
“They still have ammunition and they continue to fire at us,” he said.
Zagala said MNLF rebels on Monday torched a section of Santa Barbara, one of the neighborhoods they had occupied, to slow down the military advance.