Humanitarian crisis looms over southern Philippines

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 February, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 February, 2003, 12:00am

A humanitarian crisis has been triggered by the military offensive against Muslim separatist rebels in the south, says a regional governor.

Parouk Hussin, governor of the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao, yesterday said assistance to people affected by the conflict between the military and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) had depleted his office's infrastructure funds.

'It's a very worrying situation,' he said.

Mr Hussin said 94,700 residents were jammed into makeshift evacuation centres, where nine children and two adults have died. Hundreds more were sick from pneumonia, gastro-enteritis and diarrhoea.

He said relief had also depleted the resources of the local units of the departments of social welfare and health. And he sees more misery ahead for civilians.

The bloody conflict has displaced most of the residents in 12 of the 18 towns of the Muslim-dominated province of Maguindanao, while half the population of Pikit town, North Cotabato, had also fled.

Separate military operations in Sulu, on Jolo island, against the Muslim extremist group Abu Sayyaf, have affected four of the 18 towns on the island.

On Monday night, MILF chief Hashim Salamat issued an order that 'all who have firearms must fight till death'.

The MILF yesterday accused President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of ordering Salamat's capture 'dead or alive'. There was no official comment from the government on the allegation.

After a week-long battle that killed more than 200 rebels, the military overran Salamat's stronghold in Pikit on February 16 but failed to find him.

Yesterday, rebels killed five soldiers in an ambush. A stray bullet killed a civilian in a separate clash. Despite the hostilities, both sides vowed to continue talking. 'We will fight and talk,' rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu said.

However, he added that they would only negotiate through third parties - Malaysia and Libya - to ensure that the government would adhere to any agreements.