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PHILIPPINES: Tens of thousands displaced in fresh fighting

ALEOSAN, 13 August 2008 (IRIN) - At least 130,000 villagers in the southern island of Mindanao have been displaced in fresh fighting as troops struggle to flush out a band of Islamic separatist rebels who illegally occupied 22 villages in the province of Cotabato after a land deal was aborted by the Supreme Court last week, officials said.

Army troops, using 105mm Howitzer artillery, pounded rebel positions while at least two MG 520 attack helicopters dropped rockets in a marshland area where Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels have entrenched themselves, putting up a flag and rejecting repeated demands to vacate.

Lieutenant General Cardoso Luna, who heads the military taskforce going after the rebels, said troops were prepared for a "drawn-out war". Luna told IRIN: "They have defied the orders to vacate, so we have decided to enforce the law and drive them out, and if they resist, to neutralise them."

Withdrawal

As of 12 August, the government reported that the rebels had begun withdrawing from some villages but still held most of them and fighting was continuing.

Trouble began last week when the Supreme Court stopped the government from signing a deal with the MILF giving them free reign over vast swathes of land in the central Philippines that they consider "ancestral domain".

The deal would have given the MILF power over the economy and administration of an expanded Muslim autonomous region and paved the way for a political settlement to end the 30-year insurgency, which has seen some 12,000 MILF rebels battling government forces. The proposed deal triggered massive street protests in predominantly Christian towns in the south, forcing the Supreme Court to order an injunction until it is further examined and its merits defended in court by government peace negotiators.

A band of about 1,500 renegade MILF fighters took over 22 villages in five towns in Cotabato, which would have been included in the deal. They attacked government positions and defied orders from their leaders to leave, forcing the government to launch its biggest offensive since the ceasefire accord was signed five years ago.

Massive displacements

The National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) said 130,000 people had been displaced, taking refuge in schools converted into evacuation centres. If left unchecked, relief agencies said, the problem could become a humanitarian crisis with people desperate for food and children exposed to poor sanitation.

The NDCC said six soldiers had been wounded, while both sides sustained one death each as running gun battles and artillery fire continued. Some 83 houses have been destroyed or burned and rice fields abandoned.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) delivered about 200 sacks of rice to evacuation centres, but the NDCC said it was appealing for as many as 80,000 sacks. It needs tarpaulins, medical supplies, mats, sleeping bags, hygiene sets and portable toilets.

Dire conditions

Almost all the 6,000 residents of Tacepan, one of the occupied towns, have sought shelter in a crowded school. Water supplies are low and latrines are close to overflowing. Food is scarce and the evacuees have to share space with their cattle and other farm animals.

Imelda Balios, a local social welfare officer, said urgent appeals have been made to the government to send supplies to avert a bigger humanitarian crisis.

"Their lives are already at a standstill. Classes have been suspended, livelihoods abandoned and their lives in danger," Balios said. "This is the first time in years we've had a big evacuation, you can see that even the farm animals have been evacuated and we don't know where to put them."

Balios had taken cover in an abandoned building with dozens of others after they were caught in crossfire. "The bullets were landing near where we were hiding," she said. "It's frightening, and sooner or later the bullets will hit those trying to escape."

Close to the fighting

The evacuation centre is only about 400m away from the nearest battle-front, and occasional thuds followed by massive explosions indicate mortar fire from both sides. Officials fear evacuees could be hit.

"We had to leave, we couldn't stay in our house. But I don't think it is safe where we're now staying," said Lele Unto, as she herded her five young children past a group of soldiers into the centre. "I am afraid for my children."

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Copyright © IRIN 2008
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.



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