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|Philippine soldiers stand guard as smoke rises over Zamboanga City|
Government forces have launched major offensives on four fronts in the southern province of Basilan as they attempt to inflict a final defeat on rebel fighters of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
Helicopter gunships fired several rockets on a known MNLF position in Zamboanga City on Monday afternoon. The insurgents have held parts of the city since they attacked it on September 9.
An unknown number of civilians, thought to be around 50, are still trapped with the rebels.
Captain Jefferson Somera, spokesman for the 1st Infantry Division, said two MG-520 attack helicopters fired three rockets on an “enemy stronghold” at about 1pm.
Confirming the air operation, Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said the military is “gaining ground” and government soldiers have recovered some areas from the MNLF. “We are still moving forward,” he said.
Zagala said the military operation is taking time because the safety of the hostages has to be considered. “We have to ensure they are not harmed,” the official said.
Nevertheless, he justified the use of aerial force against the enemy, which now numbers a little over one hundred from a high of about 180 to 200 men.
Ground offensives have also been launched in the towns of Tuburan, Lamitan and Akbar. A human rights group has said that some of the 105mm mortar shells fired by government forces have landed in civilian communities.
Zainudin Malang, executive director of the Mindanao Human Rights Action Center, urged the troops to ensure that their operations “distinguish civilians from combatants,” and called for an immediate cessation.
“Before these artillery shells hit unintended targets, we urge the authorities to look into this,” Malang said. “We believe it is obvious that not everyone in Basilan is a rebel.”
Meanwhile, the number of residents displaced by the fighting in continued to rise over the weekend.
The government's social welfare office said over 62,000 individuals are now housed in various evacuation centers in Zamboanga alone.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement that many residents are not able to leave their villages for fear of getting caught in the crossfire. HRW also said some of those trapped were prevented from leaving by government forces because they lack identification documents.
“Both sides of the fighting need to be doing more to protect civilians from harm,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of HRW.
“Government forces should not be making blanket assumptions about whether individuals are rebels, based on whether they have proper documents or not.
“Civilians who fled their homes without proper documents are still civilians and must be treated that way,” he said.
HRW said the intensity of the fighting between the MNLF and security forces "has risen to that of an armed conflict and the laws of war are now applicable.”
The rights group also said that government forces have turned Zamboanga City’s largest hospital, the Zamboanga City Medical Center, into a “veritable garrison.”
It has urged both sides to not use civilians as hostages or human shields and attacking civilian structures, including hospitals.
Philippines: Basilan priest says he was the target of the attack.