More than 10,000 people fled their homes this week in Mindanao, southern Philippines, as government forces launched a major offensive against Muslim splinter groups opposed to a final peace deal to end decades of insurgency in the island. The country’s capacity to respond to emergencies has been stretched by a series of deadly disasters.
President Benigno Aquino said the offensive was a calculated response against members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), who had been harassing civilians and troops in the towns of Datu Piang and Pikit, in Maguindanao Province.
Gun battles and heavy exchanges of mortar fire have left at least 37 rebels and one soldier dead since 27 January, and the military said at least three civilians were hurt by an improvised bomb attack near a market, in which seven troops were also injured.
The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) in the capital, Manila, said it had requested assistance from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to provide tents for some 4,200 people in 10 evacuation centres. Another 4,565 people are staying with friends and relatives.
Regional military spokesman Col Dickson Hermoso said troops were given 72 hours from Thursday 30 January to end all mopping-up operations against the BIFF, which are believed to have only a few hundred members.
"We have overrun their main camp. We have taken over their headquarters, training facility, and factory where they make bombs," he told IRIN. He said there many freshly dug shallow graves where dead rebels had been buried by their comrades.
"We know they also have injured fighters, so we are calling on them to surrender so we can take them to hospitals. They have splintered into smaller groups and we are going after them, but the terrain is difficult - it is in a marshland area," he said.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda insisted that the fighting was a "law enforcement matter", and that the military had been given orders to crush the rebels.
Shelling, strikes continue
Zainudin Malang, executive director of the Mindanao Human Rights Action Centre, said the military started artillery shelling and air strikes daily at dawn in suspected rebel areas, and people had told interviewers that shelling and sporadic fighting were continuing in areas populated by civilians.
He called on both sides to "avoid harming the civilians and their properties, and to observe the rule of proportionality under international humanitarian law", and feared that more fighting could swell the numbers of those caught in the conflict.
Malang appealed to aid agencies for a quick response to the new round of displacements, saying, "Every day of delay compounds the suffering of the evacuees."
The BIFF is a breakaway faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the 12,000-strong main rebel force in the south that is preparing to sign a final peace deal with Manila in the coming weeks. The government hopes the agreement will end decades of insurgency in which around 150,000 people have died since the early 1970s and left large areas of Mindanao in deep poverty.
Another group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) led by Nur Misuari - from which the MILF split in the 1970s - also opposes the talks, and in September 2013 laid siege to the port city of Zamboanga, leaving more than 250 dead and thousands displaced in three weeks of fighting.
The BIFF has accused its former comrades in the MILF of giving up the struggle for an independent Islamic homeland in Mindanao, the country's largest southern island, which they consider their "ancestral domain".
Abu Misry, a BIFF spokesman, vowed his group would continue the attacks, but blamed [government] troops for allegedly triggering the recent fighting. "They have put civilian lives in danger, but we will not back down," he told IRIN by mobile phone from an undisclosed area in the south.
Foreign governments have been closely monitoring the peace process and urged all groups in the south to silence their guns and stop the cycle of violence. "It is now important for everyone, and all groups, to support the peace agreement that has been negotiated. The best thing now is for everyone to rally behind the agreement that has been made. That is the quickest way to bring an end to any fighting that remains," the British Foreign Minister, William Hague, told reporters during a visit to Manila.
After a major earthquake in October 2013, followed by a super typhoon in November, both in the country's central region, the latest displacements are putting further strain on the government's capacity to respond to emergencies.
"We are continuing to train and recruit volunteers. Right now we have enough people, but yes, we have formidable challenges ahead as we respond to the many crises we face," said Gwendolyn Pang, secretary general of the Philippine National Red Cross.
However, the presidential spokesman, Lacierda, maintained that “In so far as displacements from conflicts, the government has enough capacity still to address this concern."