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'Zamboanga standoff over'

Muslim women pray for peace in Zamboanga City before they watch a film about people in Mindanao, in Manila, Philippines, Saturday Sept. 21, 2013. AP/Aaron Favila

MANILA, Philippines - Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin on Saturday said that the three-week standoff between government troops and members of the Moro National Liberation (MNLF) front loyal to Nur Misuari in Zamboanga City is finally over.

"I can say that the crisis is over. We have accomplished the mission," Gazmin told The Associated Press by telephone from Zamboanga, where he helped oversee a government offensive and hostage rescue mission by about 4,500 government troops and police.

Gazmin said 195 hostages were rescued, escaped or were freed.

Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, the military's designated spokesman for the crisis, said the a small group of remaining rebels may have already ran out of ammunition as their resistance to the advancing troops has lessened as the operation closed on Friday.

Zagala said that the last engagement between the troops and the rebels happened at noontime on Friday.

“The pocket of resistance is getting lesser and the MNLF Misuari-faction in the area is considered a defeated force and expected to surrender anytime,” he said.

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He said that the military is now scouring the villages that were occupied by the rebels for unexploded bombs.

“Our move now is to remove the threat in the area of operations,” Zagala said. "Once we have done this, no more weapons, no more ammunition, then we can already turn over the [areas].”

Zagala said that as of Friday, a total of 166 have been killed, 186 captures and 24 surrendered while the government suffered 23 fatalities and 184 wounded.

The government troops also recovered 172 firearms from the rebels.

The gunbattles, including exchanges of grenade and mortar fire, forced more than 100,000 residents — nearly 10 percent of the population of the bustling port city — to flee their homes to emergency shelters, including Zamboanga's main sports complex. Thousands of houses were destroyed in the fighting.

The siege began on September 9 when heavily armed insurgents arrived by boat from outlying islands but were blocked by troops and policemen, who discovered what authorities said was a rebel plan to occupy and hoist their flag at the city hall. The rebels then stormed five coastal communities and took residents hostage and were surrounded by troops.

President Benigno Aquino III, who flew to Zamboanga, ordered an offensive after the rebels refused to surrender and free their hostages.

The rebel faction involved in the fighting 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.
 

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