ZAMBOANGA, Philippines - Dozens of people held hostage by Muslim rebels waging deadly street battles with Philippine troops escaped Tuesday amid a military offensive, but the guerrillas kidnapped the city's police chief, authorities said.
Sixty-one people have died and 70,000 residents displaced since the standoff in the southern city of Zamboanga began more than a week ago, when hundreds of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) gunmen sought to plant an independence flag.
Hundreds of other civilians had remained trapped as the rebels sought shelter from a military assault in Muslim neighbourhoods of the city, with some of the residents used as hostages or human shields.
After a relentless military offensive involving helicopter rocket attacks, which began Friday and saw the rebels lose much of the territory they had occupied, 149 people escaped on Monday night and Tuesday morning, authorities said.
The shell-shocked men, women and children were tearfully reunited away from the frontlines with their relatives, who had waited in anguish for days.
"I couldn't sleep, I couldn't eat, all I thought about was my little boy and my family," said a 28-year-old hotel employee as he and his rescued family members embraced tightly.
"My son, my father and mother, cousins and nephews were taken hostage... it was nearly too much to bear." The man, who did not want his name published for security reasons, and his wife left Zamboanga three months ago to work in the United States but returned when they learnt their relatives had been taken hostage.
The military said earlier Tuesday they were continuing to clear MNLF forces from two coastal villages where the main fighting had raged.
Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said the military had taken back 70 per cent of rebel positions and sealed escape routes.
But about 100 MNLF fighters were still resisting, he said, and it remained unclear how many civilians were still trapped or being held hostage.
And in an embarrassing setback, Zamboanga police chief Senior Superintendent Chiquito Malayo was kidnapped on Tuesday morning.
Malayo was with three of his men in a marshland area seeking to block the rebels from fleeing but were instead overpowered and taken, according to his logistics officer.