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Fighting escalates as Philippines forces attack Muslim rebels in the south

Fighting escalates as Philippines forces attack Muslim rebels in the south
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Government forces in the southern Philippines have launched an offensive against Muslim rebels as fighting escalates in this part of Asia’s largest Catholic country.

In the city of Zamboanga commandos exchanged fire with a breakaway faction of the Moro National Liberation Front who are holding dozens of hostages.

Some 13,000 people have been forced to leave their homes.

A short boat ride from Zamboanga, an unidentified group reportedly launched a separate attack on a town on the island of Basilan.

The government pledged to defend Lamitan City, a Catholic enclave in the poor and mainly Muslim region of the southern Philippines.

The island of Mindanao where Zamboanga is located has witnessed decades of violence since the 1970s. It has recently been quieter, although several areas are said to be outside the government’s control.

Many houses were set on fire as soldiers retook a district that rebels had held for three days.

Rebels have been holding up to 180 civilians hostage in Zamboanga. The government offensive is said to have killed at least 15 people since Monday.

The city of a million inhabitants has been virtually deserted with many people afraid to go out.

The rebels feel marginalised by negotiations between Manila and several separatist groups, aimed at securing more autonomy but not independence.