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Conflict

Shaky cease-fire hopes as MNLF holds out against government in Philippines

The vice president of the Philippines has headed to Zamboanga to discuss a truce with Muslim rebels. The standoff began on Monday when about 200 fighters stormed several coastal communities, taking residents hostage.

Vice President Jejomar Binay announced Saturday that he would discuss a cease-fire with the defense secretary and representatives of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Binay offered the ceasefire Friday, after five days of fighting killed 52 people - 43 rebels, five soldiers and policemen and four civilians - and wounded 46 members of the security forces and 24 civilians.

"I hope a ceasefire would be in place before the end of the day," Binay said.

The fighting in Zamboanga, a city of 1 million people about 875 kilometers (540 miles) south of the capital, Manila, has forced more than 60,000 locals to leave their homes. The conflict spread to the island of Basilan on Thursday, resulting in one death before residents were taken to safety.

'A peaceful settlement'

Binay and rebel leader Nur Misuari had agreed on Friday to halt the conflict. The vice president had said that "the details of a peaceful settlement can be threshed out with a cease-fire in place."

Media previously reported the truce could take effect by midnight, but no such deal was apparent on Saturday morning. Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin "clarified that a cease-fire has never been implemented," said Abigail Valte, spokeswoman for President Benigno Aquino: "Therefore operations continued throughout the night and will continue as necessary."

Operations would "contain and constrict Misuari's forces," Ricky Carandang, a second Aquino spokesman, said. "Much as we would welcome a cease-fire, Misuari's forces have not stopped attacking our soldiers and civilians," Carandang added.

Military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala said about 100 MNLF fighters remained, holding between 50 and 100 civilian hostages. About 3,000 elite troops had begun to advance on MNLF positions, he said, describing the military's gains as "substantial," but refusing to say which areas had been retaken by security forces.

"As of now we have no cease-fire," he said. "We continue to conduct offensives to prevent them from further endangering the lives of the civilian population and destroying property."

Decades-long conflict

The government has battled MNLF rebels since 1971, a conflict that has claimed 150,000 lives. The MNLF claims that the government has broken promises over the establishment of an autonomous region for Muslims in the largely Catholic nation's Mindanao region.

The MNLF signed a peace deal in 1996. Misuari has accused the government of violating the terms of the 1996 treaty by negotiating a separate peace deal with a rival faction.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has had more success negotiating with Manila, reaching the final stages of peace talks with the government. MILF could take over an expanded autonomous Muslim region in the south by 2016.

mkg/msh (AFP, dpa, AP)