Aid workers warned yesterday of a worsening humanitarian crisis in a major Philippine city wracked by more than two weeks of deadly street battles between Muslim rebels and soldiers.
The deaths of three troops brought the official death toll from the conflict in Zamboanga to 173 as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) guerrillas remained defiant despite being heavily outnumbered.
"We are increasingly alarmed by the situation and the growing needs of people caught up with violence," the United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in the Philippines, Luiza Carvalho, said in a statement.
"We are particularly concerned for the most vulnerable, especially the well-being of women and children."
The military said hundreds of MNLF rebels entered Zamboanga on September 9, taking over several coastal villages, burning thousands of homes and taking dozens of civilians hostage in a bid to derail peace talks.
More than 109,000 people have since been displaced in Zamboanga, according to the UN, or about 10 percent of the population of the coastal city, which is one of the major trading hubs for the strife-torn south.
"The situation in Zamboanga city ... is now a humanitarian crisis," the UN statement said.
The UN highlighted particular concerns for 70,000 people sheltering in the city's main sports complex, warning there was a serious risk of disease outbreaks and a dire need for food, drinking water and tents.
Red Cross volunteer Roseller Roxas, who has been helping at the sports stadium, said hygiene was becoming a major problem with aid workers unable to cope with the huge crowd.
"We really need more portalets [portable toilets]. It is very unsanitary. Hygiene is really the big problem here," he said.
"There are kids who don't want to line up for the toilets so they just defecate in the open."
There had already been outbreaks of measles, diarrhoea and conjunctivitis in some evacuation centres, said the spokeswoman for the city's Crisis Management Committee, Sheila Covarrubias.
"We need more medicine. There are calls for donations, not only food but also for medicine," she said.
Twenty-three security forces and 12 civilians had so far been killed in the conflict, according to military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala.