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PHILIPPINES LAUNCHES AIR STRIKE ON MUSLIM FREEDOM FIGHTERS


ZAMBOANGA, Southern Philippines -  The Philippine military launched a helicopter assault Monday at Muslim rebels occupying parts of a major southern city, stepping up efforts to end an eight-day standoff that has left dozens dead.
Two air force helicopters fired rocket rounds towards Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels held up in coastal villages in Zamboanga city, an AFP reporter witnessed, as the military confirmed the attacks.
“This is a precision close air support directed by ground troops to suppress the enemy,” military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala told AFP.
The helicopter assault was the first air strikes since troops began their offensive on Friday to defeat the MNLF forces, who have been using civilians 
as human shields.
  • Asked about the potential for the civilians to be caught up in the helicopter assaults, Zagala emphasised they were “precision” strikes.
  • Zagala said earlier Monday up to 100 MNLF rebels were still engaged in ground battles with troops around the two coastal villages, a week after the guerrillas invaded Zamboanga to stake an independence claim.
  • Zagala said the rebels were defiant in the face of the military advance.
  • “They still have ammunition and they continue to fire at us,” he said, but insisted the military was very close to victory after taking some rebel positions at the weekend.
  • “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.”
  • Heavily armed MNLF forces entered the port city’s coastal neighbourhoods on Monday last week in a bid to sabotage talks between a rival rebel group and the government that are aimed at ending decades of conflict.
  • 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.
  • The latest violence in Zamboanga has left 51 MNLF fighters, six security forces and four civilians dead, according to Zagala.
  • The rebels initially took dozens of hostages and burned hundreds of homes, forcing a shut down of Zamboanga, a city of about one million that is a key commercial hub in the region.
Zagala said MNLF rebels on Monday torched a section of Santa Barbara, one of the neighbourhoods they had occupied, to slow down the military advance.
Volleys of gunfire were heard ringing out across Santa Barbara before the helicopter assault, while sniper fire from the rebels prevented firemen from approaching the burning community, an AFP reporter said.
  • The New York-based Human Rights Watch representative visited Zamboanga and expressed concern for civilians trapped in the conflict.
  • As many as 300 civilians in one village had sought shelter in an ice plant building after abandoning their homes, while others had stayed behind to protect their belongings, it said.
  • Nearly 70,000 people have already fled the fighting, and international humanitarian agencies have rushed aid.

Source: Tribune...More...
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