The Philippine president has called on the last rebels holding residents hostage in coastal communities in the south to surrender and prevent further bloodshed as a major offensive to end an 11-day standoff crawled towards an end.
More than 200 Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels stormed five communities on the coastal outskirts of Zamboanga city on September 9 and took about 200 residents hostage. A ground, sea and air offensive by 4,500 soldiers and police has left about 40 fighters holding around 20 hostages, officials said.
Assault troops have calibrated their firepower to protect trapped civilians, slowing down an offensive by an overwhelming number of troops, the military said.
Military spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala told Al Jazeera on Friday that government forces were moving forward again and that the rebels were losing more ground. Three rebels fighters were killed in morning clashes and two government soldiers wounded, he said.
Life is precious to me. You may want to consider your life is precious as well. It is not too late to end this.
On Thursday, some of the gunmen set clusters of houses on fire in the hard-hit community of Sta. Catalina in an apparent effort to cover their escape, while 15 rebels, all looking famished and exhausted, emerged from a mangrove and surrendered, police said.
Despite the remaining hostilities, life has crept back to normal in the port city of nearly a million people, with its international airport reopening to two commercial flights from Manila after days of closure and many downtown shops resuming business.
'This is in your hands'
A smiling President Benigno Aquino III, who has overseen the offensive since last week, went to Zamboanga's airport to welcome the passengers. Facing reporters later, he said the rebels still had the option to surrender.
"Life is precious to me,'' Aquino said, addressing the rebel holdouts. "You may want to consider your life precious as well.''
"It is not too late to end this, so we can put a stop to the deaths and injuries. That is in your hands,'' he said.
Led by rebel leader Nur Misuari, the group dropped its demand for a separate Muslim state and signed an autonomy deal with the government in 1996, but the rebels did not lay down their arms and later accused the government of reneging on a promise to develop long-neglected Muslim regions in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines.
Misuari's group later splintered into factions and faded in the background.
Another rebel group, the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front, became dominant and engaged the government in peace talks brokered by Malaysia. As the talks progressed starting last year toward a new and potentially larger autonomy deal for minority Muslims in the south, Misuari and his forces felt left out.
Misuari has not been seen since the rebel siege began, but Aquino said there was growing evidence of his involvement.