Philippine Vice President Jejomar Binay has headed to the southern city of Zamboanga in a bid to broker a truce with Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fighters holding scores of civilian hostages while locked in a deadly stand-off with government forces.
A ceasefire plan was tabled by Binay to rebel leader Nur Misuari and Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin late on Friday after five days of fighting that have left 52 people dead and 70 wounded in the port of Zamboanga.
However, Gazmin “clarified that a ceasefire has never been implemented”, a government spokeswoman said in a statement read on government radio.
“Therefore [military and police] operations continued throughout the night and will continue as necessary,” she added.
During an interview with ABS-CBN television on Saturday, Gazmin insisted that any truce was dependent on a ceasefire from the rebels, who “are firing as we speak”.
A spokesman for the vice-president said Binay had talked to the leader of the MNLF in the port city and had proposed a ceasefire that would come into effect at midnight on Saturday.
Al Jazeera’s Jamela Alindogan, reporting from Zamboanga, said that there was earlier discussion that a ceasefire had been agreed between the vice president and MNLF founder, but on the ground there was no let-up in the fighting.
“We are hearing firing and mortars. The military, surrounding the area where MLNF fighters are holed up, still has not retreated,” she said.
Efforts to free hostages
Defence Secretary Gazmin, who was in Zamboanga, said security forces were continuing efforts to free the hostages held by the MNLF in several coastal districts, where they have also set fire to many homes.
Some Philippine newspapers and radio stations reported that the truce was to have taken effect as early as midnight Friday but there was no sign of a ceasefire in the city of nearly one million people on Saturday.
Misuari’s MNLF had waged a 25-year guerrilla war for independence in the country’s south before signing a peace treaty in 1996 that granted the Muslim minority limited self-rule.
He disappeared from public view when the MNLF launched the attack on Zamboanga on Monday and has accused the government of violating the terms of the 1996 treaty by negotiating a separate peace deal with a rival faction.
That faction, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), is in the final stages of peace talks with Manila and is expected to take over an expanded autonomous Muslim region in the south by 2016.
President Benigno Aquino, who is currently visiting Zamboanga, said the talks aim to end decades of rebellion that had claimed 150,000 lives in the country’s Muslim southern regions.