Philippine leader warns rebels in visit to war-torn city
Philippines forces take cover during a fire fight with Muslim rebels in Zamboanga on September 12, 2013. At least 22 people have been killed and 52 wounded in five days of fighting, while 19 of the gunmen have surrendered or been captured.
Aquino flew to the port city of Zamboanga where government troops have been battling about 180 Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fighters, calling their move a "desperate" act to derail a settlement to end decades of Muslim rebellion.
"We're not setting a deadline but we have decisive points. If they harmed hostages, resorted to arson and crossed other lines that should not be crossed, our security forces have instructions on what to do," he told reporters.
At least 22 people have been killed and 52 wounded in five days of fighting, while 19 of the gunmen have surrendered or been captured, military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala told AFP.
At least 15,000 people have fled their homes because of the fighting, which is contained in six heavily populated areas of the city of nearly one million, officials said.
They said nearly 200 Zamboanga residents have been seized as hostages and are being used as human shields by the gunmen, who have also set fire to parts of the six coastal districts.
Government forces had moved into those areas to prevent more destruction, Zagala said.
In the Santa Barbara neighbourhood, security forces Friday entered a school and a mosque vacated by MNLF fighters, the military spokesman said.
Soldiers recovered the corpses of at least two suspected rebels, an AFP photographer saw.
Sections of the Santa Catalina neighbourhood, a nearby battleground, were ablaze after a fresh firefight, ABS-CBN television reported from the scene.
Chief Inspector Ariel Huesca, a police spokesman, told AFP the areas occupied by the gunmen were "shrinking". He added: "The soldiers are moving closer to the MNLF so as to limit the movements of the MNLF."
A second military spokesman, Brigadier General Domingo Tutaan, told AFP: "We envision that there will be a peaceful result to this with the armed men laying down their arms and releasing the civilians."
Aquino said the military and police forces were ordered to brace for potential "sympathetic attacks, diversionary attacks and opportunistic attacks" by other armed groups in the region.
"If they try elsewhere I am confident that our forces will be ready to meet them head-on and prevent any more atrocities."
Muslim gunmen attacked army positions on nearby Basilan island, killing a pro-government militiaman and wounding four members of the government forces and a civilian on Thursday.
Six soldiers were wounded as government forces repulsed a fresh attack by 100 gunmen on Friday, the military said.
The crisis began when armed followers of MNLF founder Nur Misuari tried to march on the Zamboanga city hall before dawn Monday.
The rebels have since been pinned down in a few largely Muslim communities, setting fire to houses while firing at troops to keep them at bay.
Misuari is not engaged in negotiations at the moment, but is open to the idea, his spokesman Absalom Cerveza told ABS-CBN.
"Just bring whatever personality you want, and if (they are) good to us also, we will talk to them," he said in broken English.
The city government passed an ordinance late Thursday ordering the mandatory evacuation of the six conflict areas, municipal spokeswoman Sheila Covarubias told reporters.
A large convoy of trucks, jeeps and motorised tricycles were later seen leaving the area, carrying hundreds of civilians.
Police checked their identification papers to make sure no rebels slipped out.
Misuari alleges the government is violating the terms of a 1996 peace treaty by negotiating a separate peace deal with a rival faction, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The 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 deal seeks to end a Muslim insurgency that has killed some 150,000 people in the south since the 1970s.
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