Philippine troops have started to battle their way into coastal villages in the south where Muslim rebels have held scores of residents hostage in a six-day standoff, sparking fierce clashes that have killed 56 people and sent more than 60,000 residents fleeing their homes, officials said on Saturday.

Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said government forces surrounding about 200 fighters from a Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebel faction have started to advance and slowly retake rebel-held areas and clear roads in villages in the coastal outskirts of Zamboanga, a major port city.

President Benigno Aquino III said more fire-fights were expected but assured thousands of displaced villagers being sheltered at a sports complex in Zamboanga city that the rebels’ capability has been degraded. — AP

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