Troops march on rebel-held villages
Sep 14, 2013 / 7:25 am
Philippine troops have started to battle their way into coastal villages in the south where Muslim rebels have held scores of residents hostage in a six-day standoff, sparking fierce clashes that have killed 56 people and displaced more than 60,000, officials said Saturday.
Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said government forces surrounding about 200 fighters from a Moro National Liberation Front rebel faction have started to advance and slowly retake rebel-held areas and clear roads in villages in the coastal outskirts of Zamboanga, a major port city.
Military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said the offensive was "calibrated" to protect a still-unspecified number of hostages still held by the rebels.
"It's not an all-out war," Zagala told The Associated Press by telephone.
Troops have not resorted to heavy artillery fire, rockets or launched airstrikes to protect the hostages and civilians, officials said, adding that 47 of the 56 deaths were from the rebel ranks while four civilians were killed, along with two soldiers and three policemen.
Aside from the hostages, the rebels have reportedly detonated bombs to set dozens of houses on fire to slow the troops' advance. In rebel-held Santa Catalina village, an AP photographer witnessed how troops advanced behind armoured carriers to retake a road stretch only to be stalled by rebel fire, clusters of burning houses and apparent hostages yelling, "Don't fire, don't fire."
Several hostages have escaped but it remained unclear how many remained in rebel custody.
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