118,000 jostle for space in 57 centers
ZAMBOANGA CITY—The government urged its citizens on Saturday to send aid for more than 100,000 people who had fled heavy fighting between troops and Muslim rebels in Mindanao, calling their plight a “humanitarian crisis”.
Rescued. An injured resident (center) is helped by rescuers after a mortar shell believed to be from the Muslim rebels’ position hit a house in Zamboanga City. AFP
The conflict, which entered its 13th day on Saturday, has claimed more than 100 lives since hundreds of rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front invaded the key trading centre of Zamboanga, sending 118,000 to take refuge in 57 evacuation centers while forcing 188,000 students out of school.
“This has become a humanitarian crisis,” Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman told AFP while the Human Rights Watch expressed fears for several children who might be falsely tagged by the military as “rebels.”
The HRW said there were children who were arrested by government troops for allegedly identifying themselves as members of the Nur Misuari-led faction of the MNLF.
While many of the insurgents have surrendered and most of the dozens of hostages they took have been freed, attention has turned to conditions faced by those displaced by the fighting.
People jostled for space and erected tents and shelters fashioned from scavenged materials.
“We are trying to organise them by providing them better materials,” she said, but appealed to the public to send in more aid in the form of clothes, food, education materials and toys for the many children among the displaced.
“The tents are very fragile. If it starts raining hard, there will be a massive problem for children, women, the elderly, the babies and their lactating mothers,” she said.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has said in a report there was insufficient supply of tents, cooking utensils and health and sanitation facilities.
It added that children were traumatised, while immunisations for common diseases were being undertaken to prevent an outbreak.
MNLF rebels entered Zamboanga, a major trading centre with one million residents, on September 9, taking over several coastal villages, burning thousands of homes and taking dozens of civilians hostage.
President Benigno Aquino flew to the area last week to take direct command of the operations, with about 4,500 soldiers deployed to the city to push back the rebels.
As of Saturday, the military said 102 MNLF rebels and 13 policemen and soldiers had been killed, while over 100 gunmen were captured or surrendered.
However, at least 12 civilians had been killed, including a 71-year-old woman whose home was hit by rebel mortar fire on Saturday around 7:40 in the morning.
The woman, identified as Norma Gonzales Lladores, 79,was cooking food that she was supposed to distribute later to government forces when the mortar exploded in her house at the back of Alta Mall in barangay Tetuan, about 3 kilometers from barangay Sta. Catalina, the “ground zero” of the rival forces.
The explosion tore into a concrete wall and created a hole the size of a tricycle,” said Chief Inspector Ariel Huesca of the Police regional office.
Police were also investigating whether a bombing far from the frontlines that killed three people late Friday was linked to the siege.
Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala told AFP Saturday that only about 30 to 40 remaining gunmen holding about 21 hostages were engaged in sporadic fighting with troops.
“We’re doing house to house search operations today and their area of operation has become smaller,” he said.
In Malcanang, Deputy presidential spokesman Abigail Valte said efforts to unmask the financiers of Misuari were moving forward.
“We will see if they (Misuari forces) received financial assistance from different individuals or groups,” Valte said on state- owned Radyo ng Bayan.
For now, the government was focusing on the clearing operations and ensuring that the lives of members of the Misuari faction are out of danger, she said.
Muslim rebels have been fighting since the 1970s for an independent or autonomous homeland in the south of the mainly Catholic Philippines. An estimated 150,000 people have died in the conflict.
The MNLF signed a peace treaty in 1996 that granted limited self-rule to the south’s Muslim minority.
However MNLF founder Nur Misuari deployed some of his men to Zamboanga to show opposition to a planned peace deal between the government and the remaining major Muslim rebel group, the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The MILF is close to signing the peace pact, which Misuari believes would sideline the MNLF. With Sara Fabunan and Florante Solmerin