ZAMBOANGA // A Philippine police chief on Tuesday convinced his Muslim rebels captors to to surrender in a twist to a nine-day hostage standoff in the south of the country.
The senior superintendent Jose Chiquito Malayo and three of his men were taken at gunpoint while trying to persuade some Moro National Liberation Front rebels to surrender in fighting near Zamboanga city, the interior secretary Mar Roxas said.
“While trying to convince them, he was taken into custody or held hostage but he kept on convincing them until he succeeded,” Mr Roxas said.
The rebels said they had come from a nearby island to join a peaceful protest by their group in Zamboanga but withdrew after firefights erupted between government troops and their comrades, Mr Roxas said, adding police would investigate their claims.
“The important thing here is he [Malayo] was able to enact the surrender,” military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said.
The surrender of about 20 rebels came as government troops intensified an offensive to end the standoff that began on September 9 when the troops foiled a suspected plan by a larger group of rebels to take control of Zamboanga, a major port of nearly 1 million people about 860 kilometres south of Manila.
The military says it has recaptured 70 per cent of the coastal areas occupied by the rebels and rescued more than 100 hostages.
Ninety-nine people have died and 90,000 residents displaced since the standoff began with hundreds of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) gunmen invaded in a bid to derail peace talks.
After a relentless military offensive involving helicopter rocket attacks and intense street fighting, 149 people escaped on Monday night and Tuesday morning, authorities said.
The shell-shocked men, women and children were tearfully reunited away from the front lines 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.”
Benigno Aquino, the president, has been in Zamboanga since Friday to oversee the handling of the worst security crisis his administration has faced since he came to power in 2010.
The Moro insurgents, led by Nur Misuari, signed a peace deal in 1996, but the guerrillas did not lay down their arms and later accused the government of reneging on a promise to develop long-neglected Muslim regions in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation.
The rebels have become increasingly restive in recent months as they’ve been overshadowed by a rival rebel group that engaged Aquino’s government in peace talks brokered by Malaysia. Thiae talks have steadily progressed toward a new and potentially larger autonomy deal for minority Muslims in the south.
* Associated Press with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse