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Conflict

Philippine military 'saves dozens' in standoff with rebels

The Philippine military says it has saved more than 100 civilians held hostage by Muslim rebels in a nine-day standoff. Dozens more are thought still to remain trapped, and the local police chief has been abducted.

Philippine troops have saved 116 people from the hands of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels over the past day, the military said on Tuesday.

Military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said more than 100 MNLF rebels were still holding other hostages in five coastal villages in Zamboanga city, 850 km (530 miles) from the capital, Manila, but said the exact number was still unclear.

"Until we finish the clearing operations, that's the only time we get a clearer picture," he said. "But what's important for us now is we should save as many lives as we can."

Zagala said soldiers had taken back over 70 per cent of the area held by the MNLF forces since a military assault, including air strikes, began on Friday. Three soldiers were killed on Tuesday, bringing the death toll on the government side to 12 - nine soldiers and three police.

Troops and special police forces were reported to have killed or arrested more than 100 rebels.

Sixty-one people have died and 70,000 have been displaced since the standoff began on Sept 8 in Zamboanga, which has a population of one million.

The MNLF rebels were seeking to plant an independence flag in the city, which has been largely shut down since the crisis began.

Troublesome abduction

The military operation has, however, suffered a setback after the police chief of Zamboanga city was abducted by the rebels.

Officials say police Senior Superintendent Jose Chiquito Malayo was abducted at gunpoint while trying to convince some MNLF rebels to surrender.

Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said efforts were underway to rescue Malayo, who may have been taken to a nearby island.

Longstanding conflict

Muslim rebels have been fighting for an independent or autonomous homeland in the south of the Philippines, which is mainly Catholic, since the 1970s. The conflict has claimed an estimated 150,000 lives.

The MNLF insurgents under their 71-year-old leader, Nur Misuari, signed a peace deal in 1996, but they have recently stepped up their violent activities in frustration over what they see as government neglect of Muslim regions.

The MNLF also faces the prospect of being sidelined by a planned Malaysian-brokered peace deal between the government and a rival rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Under the envisaged peace deal, the MILF will have most control over a new autonomous region that potentially contains large mineral deposits and fertile farming land.

tj/ipj (AFP, AP)