|116 freed from Philippine Muslim extremists
Dozens of people trapped in a deadly urban battle between Muslim extremists and Philippine troops rushed to safety today as the guerrillas lost ground in more heavy fighting, authorities said.
Sixty-one people have died and 70,000 residents were displaced since the standoff in the major southern city of Zamboanga began more than a week ago when hundreds of Moro National Liberation Front gunmen sought to plant an independence flag.
The military said a sustained offensive, which began on Friday and included helicopter rocket attacks, was proving a success.
“For the past 18 hours, we have been able to rescue 116 people due to pressure from our troops on the ground,'' military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala told AFP.
Dozens of shell-shocked men, women and children were trucked from the front lines into a school taken over by police today, according to an AFP photographer.
Zagala said soldiers had taken back over 70 percent of areas held by the MNLF forces in two coastal villages where the main fighting had raged since an assault was launched Friday.
A short burst of helicopter rocket fire on rebel positions Monday dislodged them from some areas in the villages, allowing ground troops to advance further, he said.
Zagala said civilians wee not hurt in the air strikes, after rights groups voiced fears over the safety of those still who had not yet escaped.
However Zagala said about 100 MNLF fighters were still engaged in clashes, and it remained unclear how many were still trapped or being held hostage.