Grain stores guarded as mobs grow hungry

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 April, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 April, 1998, 12:00am

Police and military units have stepped up security at government rice and grain silos across Mindanao, fearing food riots amid the worsening El Nino drought.

Intelligence reports suggested mobs were being formed to attack key government food centres in a bid to stave off starvation, police said yesterday.

'We will protect the warehouses to the fullest,' Superintendent Ramon Conanan said.

Soldiers around the southern port of General Santos watched crowds go to church for pre-Easter Mass and to pray for rain.

National Food Authority warehouses in hard-hit South Cotabato province hold about 2.1 million sacks of rice, with private silos holding about half that amount.

Officials said the supplies were vital to the rest of the country.

Mindanao produces an estimated 40 per cent of the Philippines' rice and corn, and is a key supplier of cattle, which farmers have been forced to sell at a loss to meet loan repayments.

'We are watching things very closely at the moment, the situation is a little bit tense,' said Jose Anponesto, spokesman for the city authority of General Santos.

'We are already seeing an upsurge in crime as out-of-work labourers come to the city for food and work. At the moment there is not that much work around.' Other social workers warned that tensions were rising as Muslims fled rebel-held areas further north for the calm of the largely Christian enclave.

Fears for the water supply are also mounting as the water table drops and wells become polluted.

Crisis meetings this week led to President Fidel Ramos freeing up 14,000 sacks of rice for emergency distribution. Much of it is destined for the barren hills around General Santos.

Social workers fear far more will be needed as the risk of famine grows.

Red Cross officials warn it could be several weeks before the rice is delivered, due to transport delays, the Easter break and government inaction due to the presidential polls next month.

Fewer than 3,000 sacks have so far been delivered, and just two trucks have been provided by local officials.

The Red Cross has been called in to distribute food relief due to election rules preventing civil servants and elected officials being involved in giving aid.