Separatist rebels have abducted the head of police in the southern Philippine city of Zamboanga as government troops said they had recaptured 70 percent of the areas that had been occupied by the heavily-armed fighters.
The death toll from the fighting rose by 33 to 99 on Tuesday, the military said. Three soldiers and 30 Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels were killed during heavy fighting over the past 24 hours, armed forces spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala told the AFP news agency.
The government said more than 100 hostages were rescued on Monday morning and three soldiers were killed. The total number of hostages held by the MNLF was still unknown.
But the rebels hit back by abducting the police chief, along with two other police officers, by the MNLF during a clash with the rebels, Al Jazeera’s Jamela Alindogan reported from Zamboango.
We know for a fact that the end is near and they are trying to flee.
“A lot of people here were expecting the conflict was drawing to a close,” Alindogan said, adding that the details of the abduction were still unclear.
Helicopter gunships were deployed for the first time by the government on Monday, as the hostage standoff entered its ninth day. About 100 rebels remain holed up with hostages.
Troops and special police forces have killed or arrested more than 100 MNLF rebels, who occupied five coastal villages, after the military foiled what officials said was an attempt to take Zamboanga city hall on September 8.
The helicopter assaults were the first air strikes since troops began an offensive on Friday against the MNLF, who have been using civilians as human shields.
“This is a precision close air support directed by ground troops to suppress the enemy,” military spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala, told AFP.
Asked about the potential for civilians to be killed in the assault, Zagala said they were “precision” strikes.
‘No peaceful end’
Zagala said the rebels were defiant in the face of the military advance but insisted the offensive would work.
“We know for a fact that the end is near and they are trying to flee. Some of them may be trying to disguise as civilians, so it’s very critical that the village elders help us identify those who are not from their neighbourhoods.”
Al Jazeera’s Alindogan said a rebel commander told her there was no mediator between the two sides, that his men were prepared to die and that he did not see the possibility of a peaceful end to the fighting.
The MNLF attack is aimed at sabotaging talks centred at ending decades of conflict between rival rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and the government.
The rebels initially took dozens of hostages and burned hundreds of homes, forcing a shutdown of Zamboanga, a city of about one million that is a major commercial hub in the region.
Muslim rebels have been fighting since the 1970s for an independent or autonomous homeland in the south of the mainly Catholic Philippines. An estimated 150,000 people have died in the fighting.