Military sees new phase

THE military may end clearing operations against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters next week after the United Nations High Commission on Refugees expressed alarm that more than 120,000 people have been displaced by fighting in Mindanao since January.

“UNHCR is concerned about the safety of civilians as the conflict spreads into local villages,” spokesman Babar Baloch told reporters in Geneva, Switzerland.

Displaced. Mothers and  children gather to avail themselves of the
food and medical assistance brought in by the ARMM government at an
evacuation site in Barangay Libutan, Mamasapano, Maguindanao  as
the military intensifies its ‘law enforcement operations” against the
outlawed  Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. Omar Mangorsi
Humanitarian agencies, including UNHCR, in Mindanao are working closely with the local authorities to monitor the conditions of displaced people inside and outside the shelters.

“We have provided some blankets, jerry cans, sleeping mats, mosquito nets and plastic sheets, but more aid is needed urgently,” Mr. Baloch said.

“It is unclear how long or widely the ongoing law and order operation will extend and this is hindering the safe and dignified return of the displaced people,” he said.

He went on to say that “women and children could potentially be exposed to exploitation and abuse, given their lack of income and community protection. The limited provision of food, medicine, water and temporary shelter could exacerbate these vulnerabilities.”

The Philippines military launched an offensive earlier this year against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, an extremist break-away group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

The offensive, including attacks with artillery and helicopter gunships, has taken place in poor farming areas on Mindanao island, where Muslim rebels have for decades fought for independence.

Baloch said an estimated 13 municipalities in Maguindanao and North Cotabato had been affected by the eight weeks of clashes.

More than 120,000 had been displaced and sought shelter in schools, public buildings and madrasas, he said.

But he acknowledged, “the estimated number of displaced could be higher, since it does not include people hosted by relatives and friends.”

Baloch also warned that the numbers were “expected to grow as the fighting extends to the local communities ... already hosting many of the displaced.”

The volatile security situation is meanwhile blocking UNHCR from accessing many of the affected areas, he said.

UNHCR expressed particular concern for the safety of civilians, including women and children, stuck in the conflict area.

Children play cards  to while away time at another evacuation center
in Barangay Tambunan II, Guindulungan, Maguindanao.
While civilians did not seem to be targeted directly, they were getting caught in the crossfire, Baloch told AFP.

“Women and children could potentially be exposed to exploitation and abuse,” he warned, pointing out that many found themselves without income or community protection, and with very limited access to shelter, food, medicine and water.

“UNHCR appeals to all parties of the conflict to ensure the safety of civilians while the law and order operation is underway,” he said.                

Armed Forces spokeperson Brig. Gen. Joselito Kakilala did not mention the report of the UN refugee agency that held a media briefing on Friday, but noted that 139 BIFF members and six government troops have been killed in the fighting.

“Maybe next week, we will start the holding operations,” Kakilala said, explaining that troops will have to make sure battle areas are safe enough for residents to return to their homes.

He said the Joint Task Force Central Mindanao, which is in charge of the operation, has captured three major and five minor BIFF camps in an operation to capture suspected bomb-maker Abdul Basit Usman.

Meanwhile, Cotabato Gov. Emmylou Mendoza said her province remained on high alert and military operations are beginning to take its toll on the provincial government’s peace and development programs.

Mendoza said security forces have maintained a high level of alertness even with the arrest of Mohammad Ali Tambako, former BIFF vice chairman, and the death of Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan.

“They have trained many bombers, so we remain on alert,” Mendoza said. “Terrorism by these groups hinder our peace and development efforts, the trained bombers are still out there so we remain on alert.”

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