ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AP) — Five rebels and a 71-year-old woman were killed Saturday as fighting dragged on in a southern Philippine city between government troops and Muslim insurgents holding out with about 20 civilian hostages, officials said.
The woman was killed when a stray mortar shell allegedly fired by the rebels loyal to Moro National Liberation Front leader Nur Misuari hit her house in Zamboanga city.
Military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala said five rebels were killed and two soldiers were wounded as troops battled rebels from close range. He said 35 rebels were still holding out.
Troops are searching two neighborhoods for rebels who seized scores of civilians as human shields Sept. 9 when government forces repulsed their bid to occupy the city.
"We expect that at the soonest possible time we can corner them," Zagala said, adding that troops had recovered a lot of ground from the rebels. He did not elaborate.
He said the military had stopped using heavy weapons during the battles to avoid hitting the hostages.
The military operations have rescued more than 170 hostages, and killed or captured more than 200 rebels. Fifteen security forces and nine civilians have also died.
It's the most serious fighting in years between rebels and government forces in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation's south, the scene of a decades-old struggle for self-rule by minority Muslims.
The rebel faction involved in the fighting dropped its demand for a separate Muslim state and signed an autonomy deal with the government 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.
Misuari's group splintered into factions and faded into the background while a bigger rival group entered talks with the government on enlarging an autonomous Muslim region in the southern Philippines.
Misuari has not been seen since the rebel siege began, but President Benigno Aquino III said Thursday that there was growing evidence of his involvement.