Philippines launches helicopter assault at Muslim rebels

Philippines launches helicopter assault at Muslim rebels

Philippines - The Philippine military launched a helicopter assault Monday at Muslim rebels occupying parts of a major southern city, stepping up efforts to end an eight-day standoff that has left dozens dead.

Two air force helicopters fired rocket rounds towards Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels held up in coastal villages in Zamboanga city, an AFP reporter witnessed, as the military confirmed the attacks.

"This is a precision close air support directed by ground troops to suppress the enemy," miliary spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala told AFP.

The helicopter assault was the first air strikes since troops began their offensive on Friday to defeat the MNLF forces, who have been using civilians as human shields.

Asked about the potential for the civilians to be caught up in the helicopter assaults, Zagala emphasised they were "precision" strikes.

Zagala said earlier Monday up to 100 MNLF rebels were still engaged in ground battles with troops around the two coastal villages, a week after the guerrillas invaded Zamboanga to stake an independence claim.

Zagala said the rebels were defiant in the face of the military advance. "They still have ammunition and they continue to fire at us," he said, but insisted the military was very close to victory after taking some rebel positions at the weekend.

"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 on Monday last week in a bid to sabotage talks between a rival rebel group and the government that are aimed at ending decades of conflict.

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