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PHILIPPINES: "Worrying humanitarian situation" in Mindanao after fighting

MANILA, 20 August 2008 (IRIN) - President Gloria Arroyo has called for major humanitarian relief assistance on the southern Philippines island of Mindanao and ordered government troops to crush Muslim separatist rebels after a rampage in recent days left 38 people dead, most of them defenceless civilians.

Arroyo's spokesman, Jesus Dureza, told IRIN the president has "ordered massive operations to provide assistance and other social intervention measures to assist thousands of citizens affected" by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) attacks.

Dureza said Arroyo also ordered the defence and social welfare departments to "trigger the release of emergency funds" to the affected areas, mainly Christian towns and villages.

Hundreds of MILF rebels, led by Islamist hardliner Commander Bravo, laid siege to the towns of Kolambugan, Kauswagan, Maigo and Linamon in Lanao del Norte Province, as well as to the town of Maasim in Sarangani Province. The rebels burned houses, took over the local municipal halls and police stations, looted businesses and engaged police and military forces in intense gun battles.

The rebels also seized hostages as they retreated, using them as "human shields" to keep pursuing troops at bay. In the aftermath, 38 bodies have been recovered, including those of three soldiers. Nearly all the dead were civilians who were either shot at close range or hacked to death using machetes, military and police authorities stated.

On 17 August, MILF rebels ambushed a military convoy also in Lanao, killing seven soldiers, while last week, another MILF unit led by Commander Umbra Kato took over 20 villages in Northern Cotabato Province, triggering heavy gun battles. They were subsequently chased out by heavy artillery and air bombardment.

Over 220,000 flee homes

All in all, over 220,000 civilians have fled their homes in Lanao and North Cotabato provinces. While some have returned to their devastated residences many remain in squalid camps where sanitation and access to food remain a major problem, disaster relief agencies said.

Arroyo, branding the attacks "sneaky and treacherous", said: "We will not tolerate, and will crush any attempt to disturb peace and development in Mindanao."

Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno branded Kato and Bravo as "terrorists" who no longer follow the MILF chain of command. He has also put up a 10 million peso (US$220,000) bounty for any information leading to the arrest of the two, who are senior MILF leaders - described by security analysts as hardliners who have always rejected peace talks with the government.

Speaking on Radio Mindanao Network on 20 August, Bravo said the attacks were launched by "mujahedins who had run out of patience" after the Supreme Court on 4 August issued an injunction against a proposed MILF-government deal that would have expanded a Muslim autonomous region in Mindanao to be governed by the MILF. The towns that were hit in the latest attacks were to have been part of the autonomous region.

The rebel leader said if the government sends troop reinforcements to the south, "we are prepared to trade fire with them until we are decimated or we have finished them off. What the Muslims want is Islamic justice in Mindanao. In the eyes of Allah we are not terrorists." Bravo was reacting to accusations by some government officials that he and his rebel units no longer follow the MILF chain of command.

WFP to the rescue

The UN World Food Programme meanwhile said it was stepping up its relief operations in Mindanao, following a rapid assessment done by its staff on the ground. It said it will dispatch an additional 250 metric tonnes (mt) of rice for some 60,000 people displaced by the clashes in Lanao Province, on top of the 450 mt it had already distributed in North Cotabato Province.

WFP country director Stephen Anderson noted that there was a "worrying humanitarian situation in Mindanao".

"In the current unpredictable security situation, vulnerable victims of these clashes urgently need to receive humanitarian assistance, especially essential food among other complimentary relief items," Anderson said in announcing the relief assistance.

"WFP plans to continue to conduct more in-depth assessments in affected provinces together with relevant partners to better quantify the overall magnitude of the needs faced by the affected population and recommend additional support, as necessary," he said.

"We hope for peace and stability so that affected families in Mindanao can soon return to their homes and begin rebuilding their lives," Anderson said.

Appeal for reinforcements

Beltran Lumaque, mayor of Kolambugan town which was the most heavily damaged area in Lanao, appealed for more police and military reinforcements. He said over 15 houses had been torched in the town and its police station and mobile patrol cars were destroyed.

Lumaque told IRIN: "They [the rebels] killed innocent, defenceless civilians. People are traumatised. We need food and medicine and we want the soldiers here."


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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