ZAMBOANGA CITY -- The military said troops have taken custody of at least 45 more Moro rebels -- all exhausted and low on ammunition -- as a guerrilla siege that has dragged for three weeks in this city continued to crumble.
Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said Thursday that troops needed to clear coastal communities in this southern port city "to the last rebel" from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) before they can declare the September 9 siege over.
Zagala said the 45 rebels surrendered or were captured in clashes that left three gunmen dead.
Also on Thursday, government forces overran Sumatra Island, which served as the landing points of the MNLF rebels who infiltrated the city.
Sumatra Island, which is part of Talon-Talon village, five kilometers east of this city, fell into the hands of the government forces following an airstrike at daybreak Thursday.
Ground forces swooped down and occupied Sumatra Island, which is thickly covered by mangrove, as the airstrike stopped. The island is accessible to the village of Rio Hondo.
Zagala said they launched the assault following information that a group of rebels are holed up in the island. He added that the group in Sumatra was part of the main group involved in the ongoing standoff.
He also revealed that the death toll from the ongoing standoff on the government side increased to 24, as three soldiers were killed Thursday in a clash in Barangay Sta. Catalina.
The number of wounded also increased to 184, since five soldiers were also injured in the same clash.
Zamboanga Peninsula police information officer Chief Inspector Ariel Huesca said that 202 MNLF rebels were captured and 24 surrendered as of 8 p.m. Thursday. About 121 rebels were killed.
The standoff started when more than 300 rebels, angry over the failure of a 1996 peace pact, stormed communities and took scores of residents hostage after troops foiled their attempt to take over the city’s hall. They were supposed to hoist their flag at the city hall to declare independence.
The rebels were led by Habier Malik, follower of MNLF founding chairman Nur Misuari. (AP/With Bong Garcia/Sunnex)