The vice president of the Philippines arrived in the southern city of Zamboanga on Saturday to discuss a truce with Muslim rebels holding scores of civilian hostages, as the death toll from the standoff soared above 50.
The country’s number-two, Jejomar Binay, put the truce plan to rebel leader Nur Misuari and Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin late Friday as the gunmen torched homes and tens of thousands in the city of nearly one million fled the fighting.
Presidential spokeswoman Abigail Valte said that until the ceasefire was implemented, military operations would continue “as necessary”, in a statement read on government radio.
The rebels, from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), began the standoff on Monday, when around 180 of them entered the port city and took hostages in a bid to scupper peace talks between another militant group and the government.
A spokesman for Binay said the vice president had talked to MNLF leader Misuari on Friday night to propose a ceasefire that would come into effect at midnight on Saturday.
“He talked to Misuari and he talked to Gazmin, and they agreed to discuss a ceasefire,” spokesman Joey Salgado told AFP early Saturday.
During an interview with ABS-CBN television on Saturday, Gazmin insisted that any truce was dependent on the rebels, who “are firing as we speak”.
Binay tweeted in the afternoon that he had arrived in Zamboanga, where he was to join President Benigno Aquino to discuss the details of his plan with the defence secretary and MNLF representatives.
Aquino arrived in the southern city on Friday.
As the fighting raged, a marine and four rebels were killed and five other soldiers were wounded in a fierce skirmish in the Kasanyangan district before dawn, military spokesman Major Angelo de Guzman said.
The deaths brought the toll from six days of fighting to 53 dead and 70 wounded, more than double the previously announced total as of Friday, he said.
The toll included 43 dead guerrillas and nine of their wounded comrades.
Nineteen gunmen have surrendered or been captured, while the local civil defence office said 69,000 people fled coastal districts that were infiltrated by the heavily armed MNLF members early Monday.
Nearly 500 houses had been torched by the rebels as of Friday, with the buildings burning to the ground because snipers were preventing firemen from attending to the blazes, city fire marshal Dominador Zabala told reporters.
Military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala said just over 100 MNLF guerrillas were left hiding out in the six coastal neighbourhoods, holding between 50 and 100 civilian hostages.
About 3,000 elite troops were going after them, he said, describing the military gains as “substantial” while refusing to say which areas had been retaken by security forces.
In Santa Barbara district Saturday, rebels fired rocket-propelled grenades at about 50 soldiers, wounding several troops, a photographer saw.
The soldiers were attacking a five-storey school building that contained rebel snipers, he added.
Valte, Aquino’s spokeswoman, accused the guerrillas of “firing indiscriminately at civilians including Red Cross volunteers who were wounded by mortar fire”, as well as attacking firemen who were responding to “the wanton burning of homes by the MNLF”.
The military and police operations in the neighbourhoods aimed to “contain and constrict” the rebels, she added.
The MNLF waged a 25-year guerrilla war for independence before signing a peace treaty in 1996 that granted limited self-rule to the south’s Muslim minority.
Misuari, who has accused the government of violating the terms of a 1996 treaty by negotiating a separate deal with a rival faction, had disappeared from public view shortly before the fighting began Monday.
The rival faction, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), is in the final stages of peace talks with Manila and is expected to take over an expanded autonomous Muslim region in the south by 2016.
President Aquino said the peace talks with the MILF aimed to end decades of rebellion that had claimed 150,000 lives in the country’s Muslim southern regions.