UN agencies have appealed for peace in the southern Philippines, where fighting between government forces and Muslim separatist rebels has escalated over the past two weeks and the number displaced is now over 270,000.
In a 22 August statement, the UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) said civilian lives were at risk as a result of fighting between the army and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has been attacking, and trying to take control of, civilian communities in the southern island of Mindanao.
"It is with great concern that we witness the deteriorating humanitarian situation in various parts of Mindanao as a result of the recent upsurge in conflict," the IASC stated. "Many civilians have lost their lives and many more are at risk."
"The agencies of the IASC, who come together to coordinate relief efforts on behalf of the international community in times of crisis, appeal for calm and protection of all civilians," it said.
The IASC involves UN agencies, including the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN Development Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and some non-governmental organisations.
MILF rebel units led by Commander Umbra Kato and Commander Bravo - two hardliners who have repeatedly rejected peace talks with the government - have attacked and taken over numerous towns in the past three weeks.
The MILF leadership has sought to distance itself from the attacks, saying they were not sanctioned. President Arroyo, however, has branded them treacherous, and a clear violation of a ceasefire accord signed in 2003.
Over 270,000 displaced
The National Disaster Coordinating Council in its latest report of 25 August said the number of internally displaced people had risen to 272,867. While the authorities have managed to regain control of the affected communities and push out the rebels, most of the displaced are too scared to return home, fearing they might get caught in the crossfire if fighting resumes.
Photo: Jason Gutierrez/IRIN
|Children walk along a highway as MILF rebels drive past in a jeep in Lanao del Norte Province|
The WFP is now distributing over 650,000 metric tonnes of rice to the affected areas and is planning more deliveries. The Red Cross and UNICEF are bringing in water and sanitation equipment, but there are still not enough portable toilets to meet needs, health officials said.
Defence Secretary Gilbert Teodoro said government troops were closing in on the rebels, but told the public to prepare for a protracted battle.
"They (civilians) are safe to go home now, but we understand the trauma they are now suffering," Teodoro told reporters. "Our troops and police are trying their level best - more than what is expected of them - to end this as soon as possible, but it would be dishonest of me to say it will be over soon.”
Against the creation of new militias
The global rights group Amnesty International, meanwhile, has warned the government against creating additional civilian militias to support its offensive against the rebels in the south.
Amnesty's Asia-Pacific director, Sam Zarifi, in a 23 August statement, warned that the deployment of more militias could "set off a chain of reprisals" that could further endanger civilians.
He said both sides in the conflict should exercise restraint and make sure civilians are not harmed. The warning came after the Interior Department said on 20 August it was sending a cache of shotguns to arm civilians so that they could be deployed in the hunt for MILF fighters.