ZAMBOANGA - Philippine soldiers pursued heavily armed Muslim rebels through the streets and homes of a major city Wednesday, warning they would be killed or captured unless they surrendered.
About 200 members of the Moro National Liberation Front sailed into the southern port city of Zamboanga on September 9 to stake an independence claim and derail peace talks aimed at ending a decades-long insurgency.
Eighty-six MNLF gunmen, as well as 11 soldiers and four civilians have already died in the ensuing conflict, which has seen street battles in neighbourhoods occupied by the rebels as well as military helicopter rocket attacks.
Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said fresh fighting took place Wednesday, and soldiers had orders to "neutralise" the remaining 30-40 rebels, who were roaming through houses in urban areas.
"We will continue with our calibrated military response until they are neutralised, either through being killed or captured, or they surrender," he told AFP.
"We want to let them know there is no dishonour in surrendering, when that saves lives."
MNLF leader Nur Misuari had reportedly called for safe passage for his men back to their island strongholds as part of a failed ceasefire initiative, but President Benigno Aquino rejected the condition.
Zagala emphasised the military was intent on not allowing the remaining rebels to escape, with troops blocking strategic routes out to sea.
Nevertheless, he said the troops could not conduct a full-out assault against the rebels for fear of endangering an unknown number of civilians unable to leave the embattled neighbourhoods.