World › Philippines VP to discuss truce as battles rage - ( J44P44NN )

Saturday, September 14, 2013

ZAMBOANGA, Philippines —

Philippine Vice President Jejomar Binay headed to the southern city of Zamboanga Saturday to discuss a truce with Muslim rebels holding scores of civilian hostages even as troops pressed their offensive against the heavily armed gunmen.

A ceasefire plan was tabled by Vice President Jejomar Binay to rebel leader Nur Misuari and Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin late 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”, Aquino spokeswoman Abigail Valte said in a statement she 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 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 rebel leader Nur Misuari on Friday night to propose a ceasefire that would come into effect at midnight on Saturday.

“He talked to Misuari and he talked to Gazmin, and they agreed to discuss a ceasefire,” spokesman Joey Salgado told AFP early Saturday.

Binay tweeted just before noon that he was on his way to join Aquino in Zamboanga, where he is to discuss the details of his plan with the defense secretary and representatives of Misuari’s Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

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.

In Santa Barbara district, rebels fired rocket-propelled grenades at about 50 soldiers on a city street, wounding several troops, an AFP photographer saw.

The soldiers were attacking a five-story school building where rebel snipers were taking potshots at the them, he added.

Misuari’s MNLF waged a 25-year guerrilla war for independence before signing a peace treaty in 1996 that granted limited self-rule to the south’s Muslim minority.

He disappeared from public view shortly before the fighting began Monday, but 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.

The military operations are designed to “contain and constrict Misuari’s forces” in Zamboanga, Ricky Carandang, a second Aquino spokesman, told AFP Saturday.

“Much as we would welcome a ceasefire, Misuari’s forces have not stopped attacking our soldiers and civilians,” Carandang added.

Military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala said just over a hundred guerrillas were left but were holding between 50 and 100 civilian hostages in several coastal districts, where they have also set fire to many homes.

About 3,000 elite troops were now advancing on MNLF positions, he said, describing the military’s gains as “substantial” while refusing to say which areas had been retaken by security forces.

“As of now we have no ceasefire,” he told AFP.

“We continue to conduct offensives to prevent them from further endangering the lives of the civilian population and destroying property.”

He said the rebels had suffered 43 dead and 19 others had surrendered or been captured, meaning they have lost about a third of the estimated 180 gunmen who had infiltrated six coastal districts of Zamboanga.

Five soldiers and policemen and four civilians have also been killed, while 46 members of the security forces and 24 civilians had been wounded, Zagala said.

About 69,000 residents have fled the fighting, said regional civil defence chief Adriano Fuego.

Aquino said the peace talks with the MILF aim to end decades of rebellion that had claimed 150,000 lives in the country’s Muslim southern regions.

The president flew to Zamboanga on Friday and remained there on Saturday to see to the needs of the troops and civilians.

© 2013 AFP