Nearly 100 Muslim guerrillas who have held scores of people hostage for a week in a southern Philippine city have been killed or captured in an offensive to retake rebel-held coastal communities.
Army troops and police special forces have regained rebel-held grounds and are pressing an assault deeper into communities in the coastal outskirts of Zamboanga city, where more than 100 Moro National Liberation Front guerrillas are holding an unspecified number of hostages, military spokesman Lt Col Ramon Zagala said.
"We're gaining ground, we're pushing forward," he said. Troops are calibrating their firepower to avoid harming civilians, Mr Zagala added.
At least 51 rebels have been killed and 42 others captured, most while trying to escape along the coast after discarding their camouflage uniforms for ordinary clothes, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said, adding that the gunmen would face criminal charges.
Six policemen and soldiers, along with four villagers, have been killed in the stand-off, which began on Monday when troops foiled an attempt by the rebels, who arrived by boat from outlying islands, to march and hoist their flag at Zamboanga's city hall. They barged into five coastal villages and took more than 100 hostages as human shields.
Army troops and police, backed by helicopters and navy gunboats, initially surrounded the rebels with their hostages while government officials tried to convince the insurgents to free their captives and surrender. But government forces decided to attack Friday after the guerrillas started setting on fire clusters of houses and fired mortar rounds that wounded several Red Cross aid workers, Mr Zagala said.
While the government's offensive is gaining momentum, Mr Roxas said it's difficult to tell when troops will be able to end the stand-off, which has displaced more than 67,000 residents.
The crisis has virtually paralysed the port city of nearly a million people, after authorities closed its international airport and suspended sea ferry services.
The Moro insurgents, led by rebel leader Nur Misuari, signed a peace deal in 1996, but the guerrillas did not lay down their arms and later accused the government of reneging on a promise to develop long-neglected Muslim regions in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation.
The rebels have become increasingly restive in recent months as they were overshadowed by a rival rebel group, which engaged President Benigno Aquino III's government in peace talks brokered by Malaysia. The talks have steadily progressed toward a new and potentially larger autonomy deal for minority Muslims in the south.