Aquino calls on rebels to surrender, end bloodshed

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Thursday, September 19, 2013

ZAMBOANGA CITY (Updated) -- President Benigno Aquino III called on the last rebel holdouts holding residents hostage in coastal communities here to surrender and prevent further bloodshed, as a major government offensive to end an 11-day standoff crawled toward an end.

More than 200 Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels stormed five communities on the coastal outskirts of this city on September 9 and took about 200 residents hostage. A ground, sea and air offensive by 4,500 soldiers and police has left about 40 insurgents holding around 20 hostages, officials said.

Assault troops have calibrated their firepower to protect trapped civilians, slowing down an offensive by an overwhelming number of troops, the military said.

Fresh clashes killed an army commando and six rebels Thursday. Some of the gunmen set clusters of houses on fire in the hard-hit community of Sta. Catalina in an apparent effort to cover their escape, while 15 insurgents, all looking famished and exhausted, emerged from a mangrove and surrendered, police said.

Despite the remaining hostilities, life has crept back to normal in this port city of nearly a million people, with the Zamboanga International Airport reopening to two commercial flights from Manila after days of closure, and many downtown shops resuming business.

A smiling President Aquino, who has overseen the offensive since Friday, went to Zamboanga's airport on Thursday to welcome the passengers. Facing reporters later, he said the rebels still had the option to surrender.

"Life is precious to me," Aquino said, addressing the rebel holdouts. "You may want to consider your life precious as well."

"It is not too late to end this, so we can put a stop to the deaths and injuries. That is in your hands," Aquino said.

Led by rebel leader Nur Misuari, the group dropped its demand for a separate Muslim state and signed an autonomy deal with the government in 1996, but the guerrillas did not lay down their arms and later accused the government of reneging on a promise to develop long-neglected Muslim regions in the predominantly Roman Catholic country.

Misuari's group later splintered into factions and faded in the background.

Another rebel group, the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front, became dominant and engaged the government in peace talks brokered by Malaysia. As the talks progressed starting last year toward a new and potentially larger autonomy deal for minority Muslims in the south, Misuari and his forces felt left out and increasingly turned restive.

More than 100 rebels and their commanders who have been captured or surrendered will likely be charged with rebellion, as well as violating international humanitarian laws that forbid taking people hostage and using them as human shields and occupying civilian communities, said officials.

Misuari has not been seen since the rebel siege began, but Aquino said Thursday that there was growing evidence of his involvement.

The President also vowed on Thursday to rehabilitate the city, where thousands of residents have been displaced.

He said the government has adequate funds to rehabilitate the communities affected by the standoff, adding that his administration has been coordinating with the local government of Zamboanga for the rehabilitation plans.

The severely affected areas are the adjoining villages of Sta. Catalina, Sta. Barbara and Rio Hondo, where sporadic fighting was reported coupled with conflagration.

Initial assessment showed that some P3.89 billion is needed to rehabilitate and provide continuing assistance to the displaced families, said Aquino.

The President said his office has the available contingency and calamity funds of P6.1 billion, adding that the assistance would include shelter, livelihood, educational and supplemental feeding.

However, he said that everything has yet to be finalized, although the local government has initially identified an area where to possibly relocate the informal settlers. (AP/With Bong Garcia/Sunnex)

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