Philippines says military campaign in key city 'over'

A military campaign at a key Philippine port against Muslim gunmen opposed to peace talks ended Saturday with close to 500 rebels killed or captured and nearly 200 hostages freed, the army said.

"The threat to Zamboanga is over. The enemy has no organised resistance left," military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala told AFP.

After nearly three weeks of fighting between troops and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), police will take over to clear the city of MNLF stragglers and find a key guerrilla leader who remains unaccounted for, he added.

The military said Nur Misuari, who founded the guerrilla group in the early 1970s, had sent his top lieutenant Habier Malik and hundreds of his armed followers to Zamboanga three weeks ago in a bid to derail peace talks with a rival Muslim rebel group.

The fighting also claimed the lives of 23 soldiers and policemen as well as 12 civilians, while 180 members of the security forces and 72 civilians were wounded.

Militants seized scores of hostages as they holed up in several coastal districts of the city of one million people, holding off 4,500 troops sent to root the rebels out.

More than 10,000 homes were razed to the ground in the ensuing street battles, forcing more than 100,000 people -- or around a 10th of the city's population -- to flee.

Philippine officials said Saturday they believed that all 195 hostages held by the gunmen had either escaped, been rescued or released by the gunmen.

"The indications are that they are no longer holding any hostages," military spokesman Brigadier-General Domingo Tutaan told reporters in Manila.

Abigail Valte, a spokeswoman for President Benigno Aquino, confirmed that all of those known to have been taken hostage were now accounted for.

"Remember that our task from day one is to ensure the safety of the hostages that were taken, to ensure their safe recovery as well as to get civilians out of harm's way. And that's already been accomplished," she said on government radio.

Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas visited Zamboangga's Martha Street, the scene of some of the heaviest fighting, to raise the Philippine flag at a warehouse that they believed were used by the gunmen as command post.

"Siege in Zamboanga City is over. We honour the fallen, the brave and the soldiers & policemen who died for their countrymen," the city government quoted Roxas as saying on its official Twitter site.

Zagala, the military spokesman, told AFP by telephone from Zamboanga that 183 guerrillas were killed and 292 others either surrendered or were captured.

The authorities are checking the identities of some of the slain gunmen to determine whether guerrilla leader Malik was among them, he added.

Zagala said it would take the police forces between 10 and 14 days to clear the conflict areas of possible MNLF stragglers, unexploded bombs, and booby traps.

"Clearing is critical," he said, and the military forces involved in the fighting would remain in the city to support the police should the need arise.

The fighting encompassed between 30 and 40 hectares (74-99 acres) of densely packed communities and nearby mangrove swamps and fish pens, he added.

Muslim rebels have been fighting since the 1970s for an independent or autonomous homeland in the south of the mainly Catholic Philippines. An estimated 150,000 people have died in the conflict.

The MNLF signed a peace treaty in 1996 that granted limited self-rule to the south's Muslim minority.

However the group is opposed to a planned final peace deal between the government and the remaining major Muslim rebel group, the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

The MNLF believes the deal could leave it sidelined.