ZAMBOANGA, Philippines - The Philippine military said Monday they were close to defeating Muslim rebels laying siege to a southern city, but the guerrillas defiantly traded gunfire while using civilians as human shields.
The military said up to 100 Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels were still engaged in battles with troops around two coastal villages in Zamboanga, a week after the guerrillas invaded the city to stake an independence claim.
"They still have ammunition and they continue to fire at us," armed forces spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala told AFP by phone from Zamboanga, but he insisted a military offensive was succeeding.
"We know for a fact that the end is near and they are trying to flee. Some of them may be trying to disguise as civilians, so it's very critical that the village elders help us identify those who are not from their neighbourhoods."
Heavily armed MNLF forces entered the port city's coastal neighbourhoods last Monday in a bid to sabotage talks between a rival rebel group and the government that are aimed at ending decades of conflict.
Muslim rebels have been fighting since the 1970s for an independent or autonomous homeland in south of the mainly Catholic Philippines. An estimated 150,000 people have died in the fighting.
The latest violence in Zamboanga has left 51 MNLF fighters, six security forces dead and four civilians dead, according to Zagala.