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Conflict

Security forces press offensive against MNLF separatists in Philippines

Security forces have killed or captured nearly 100 guerrillas who are holding scores of hostages in the Philippines. Four villagers have been killed, as well as six policemen and soldiers.

On Sunday, security forces regained ground and pressed their assault into communities on the outskirts of Zamboanga city, where about 100 Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) guerrillas hold hostages, military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said. Troops have calibrated their firepower to avoid harming civilians, he added.

"We're gaining ground," Zagala said. "We're pushing forward."

The siege began Monday, when rebels stormed coastal villages and took more than 100 hostages. Security forces have killed at least 51 rebels and captured 42 others, most as they tried to escape along the coast after swapping their camouflage uniforms for ordinary clothes, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said, adding that the gunmen would face criminal charges.

'Fighting is continuing'

Backed by helicopters and gunboats, army troops and police had initially surrounded the rebels and their hostages while government officials tried to convince the insurgents to free their captives and surrender. However, government forces decided to attack Friday after the guerrillas started setting fire to clusters of houses and shooting mortar rounds that wounded several Red Cross aid workers, Zagala said. A ceasefire floated late Friday and early Saturday never materialized.

"Fighting is continuing as we speak," military spokesman Zagala said. "They continue to resist and conduct offensive actions against us."

Though the government's offensive has gained momentum, Interior Secretary Roxas said that he could not predict when troops might have a breakthrough and end the standoff, which has displaced more than 67,000 residents. The crisis has virtually paralyzed the port city of nearly 1 million people, with authorities closing off its international airport and suspending sea ferry services.

Beginning in 1971, the conflict between Muslim separatists in the south and the government has claimed 150,000 lives over the decades. The MNLF signed a 1996 peace treaty granting limited self-rule to the south's Muslim minority, but the rebels have grown increasingly restive as the government has engaged the breakaway Moro Islamic Liberation Front in talks that have progressed toward a potentially larger autonomy deal that could take effect as early as 2016.

mkg/msh (AFP, AP)