Philippine government troops claimed more than a week ago to be mopping up a failed attempt by Muslim rebels to seize the port city of Zamboanga, but news media report continuing clashes and mounting casualties.
The fighting, in its 17th day when dawn broke over the paralyzed city Thursday, has destroyed 1,000 buildings, driven at least 80,000 local residents from their homes and killed scores, Asia Times Online reported. It has also reportedly spread to areas of the southern island of Mindanao and has involved other Muslim militants, including Abu Sayyaf.
"The Zamboanga crisis has laid bare the inherent vulnerabilities of the Philippine government in providing security to its citizens as well as instituting durable peace in Mindanao," the online news site said in an analysis of the crisis.
Government-run media have reported little about the sporadic fighting that has closed schools and transit operations for more than two weeks, apparently in fear of scaring off investors and tourists and alarming the millions of Filipinos who work and live abroad. Independent media, though, have lamented the dearth of attention on the Philippine crisis in comparison with the four-day siege of a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya.
About 200 rebels of the Moro National Liberation Front, which has been fighting for autonomy for Philippine Muslims for more than 40 years, sailed from their island villages west of Zamboanga on Sept. 9 to launch a pre-dawn assault on the port city of 800,000. The attackers had planned to march to the city center, plant a flag at City Hall and proclaim the Independent Bangsamoro Republic, according to Inquirer.net.
Inquirer quoted Philippine army spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala as saying 103 rebels had been killed since the abortive attempt to seize the city and that another 118 had surrendered. At least 14 government troops and security officers have died, as well as several civilians.
While the deployment of more than 3,000 police and soldiers scattered the initial invaders and drove them into small factions holding out in the evacuated outskirts, reinforcements from allied Muslim factions have arrived to spread the clashes and standoffs to surrounding towns, Inquirer said.
President Benigno Aquino III has issued an ultimatum for the rebel front's founder, Nur Misuari, to surrender, warning that the government is prepared to use additional force. The threat followed reports that Misuari recruited impoverished rebels for the Zamboanga siege with promises of money and arms.
Misuari also led the gunmen to believe their actions were the start of a United Nations operation to secure the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, Asia Times Online said. The news site quoted Mujiv Hataman, leader of the ARMM, an area of southern territory over which officials in Manila and Moro have been negotiating under a tentative power- and resource-sharing agreement reached last year with a splinter group of the original Moro front.
Muslims make up about 5% of the Philippines' 106 million population, while the vast majority of the rest adhere to Catholicism or other Christian faiths.
The government has been struggling with Muslim insurgents since the Moro front was founded in 1971, with at least 120,000 estimated to have died in the fighting.