ZAMBOANGA, Philippines — Life in a southern Philippine city at the center of a hostage crisis is slowly returning to normal, as troops went house-to-house Wednesday searching for the remaining Muslim rebels and their hostages in a 10-day standoff that displaced more than 100,000 people.
As the worst fighting in years between Muslim rebels and government troops eased, the military warned the rebel holdouts that they faced two choices: surrender unconditionally, or “suffer the consequences and feel the weight of the suffering of so many innocent people in your hands,” said military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala.
The standoff began Sept. 9 when Moro National Liberation Front rebels tried to take control of Zamboanga, a major port city of nearly 1 million people. They were foiled by troops but still managed to take scores of people hostage.
The military pressure has resulted in the release of 178 hostages so far. The fighting has killed 14 soldiers and police and seven civilians, while 86 rebels have died and 93 others have been captured.
About 30 to 40 rebels, led by Habier Malik, remained hiding with 21 hostages in two communities, authorities said Wednesday. Troops, ordnance teams and bomb-sniffing dogs were scouring 70 percent of the coastal areas previously occupied by the insurgents.
“It looks like it’s nearing the end. The government is doing its best to put the situation under control,” said Rogelio de Sosa, plant manager of the Zamboanga Universal Fishing Corp. Fishing and canning industries are the city’s lifeline, and factories were forced to cut production because of fighting, a naval blockade and the closure of the city’s airport and seaport.
Zamboanga Mayor Isabelle Climaco-Salazar called on residents to remain steadfast. “Let not devastation creep in our hearts,” she said, holding back tears. “We shall fight for justice, we shall rebuild this city, we shall come out stronger after all this.”
Regional prosecutor Peter Medalle said the captured rebels and their commanders would 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.
The Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines said flights would resume Thursday. Stores and banks have already reopened in the city center.
De Sosa said his company faced a shutdown unless the city’s bustling port reopened soon. “We will not have any raw materials to use. We also cannot ship out our finished products. So it is futile to keep on producing,” he said.
The MNLF faction, overshadowed by a rival and bigger rebel group in negotiations with the government to expand an autonomous Muslim region in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation’s south, barged into the city several weeks after declaring independence in Muslim-dominated southern provinces.
Led by Nur Misuari, the group signed a peace deal 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. The government says the rebels, with several hundred armed fighters, refused to take part in the ongoing talks with their rivals – the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front – because they insisted they are the sole representatives of minority Muslims.
De Sosa said his cannery cannot operate 24 hours a day because of a curfew that remains in effect.
“Our workers are affected,” he said, adding that many employees’ houses were burned down.
“Some of them are able to go to work because they moved in with relatives,” he said. “Some have only the clothes on their backs. So we are contributing used clothes and things so they can continue to work.”
He said the factory, which normally produces 1 million cans a day, was down to half capacity, with a 50 percent workforce.