UN body bothered by military claims rebels hiding in refugee campsBy Jeoffrey Maitem and Edwin Fernandez
COTABATO CITY, Philippines—The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said it was concerned about a recent military claims that fleeing gunmen under Ameril Umra Kato were hiding among refugees in various evacuation centers in Maguindanao.
Arjun Jain, UNHCR head of office in Mindanao, said in a statement issued here on Thursday that the claims of the military could worsen the situation of the evacuees, who had sought shelter from nearly two weeks of intermittent fighting between government forces and members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
“The situation of these displaced and host communities are becoming more fragile as the conflict continues. They are unable to return home safely because of the conflict, especially in Maguindanao. At the same time, they fear that the evacuation centers will become more unsafe as rumors circulate that armed men are staying there,” Jain said.
Earlier, Col. Prudencio Asto, spokesperson of the military’s 6th Infantry Division based in Maguindanao, said some BIFF guerrillas were hiding in evacuation centers in the towns of Shariff Aguak, Datu Unsay, Datu Saudi, Datu Hoffer, and Ampatuan after the military overran their main camp.
“Some of them are now in the evacuation centers. But by all means, we will get them to face the consequences of their acts,” Asto said.
Asto said legitimate evacuees had nothing to worry about as the military would not be indiscriminate in its hunt for the BIFF guerrillas inside evacuation centers.
“The evacuation sites are cramped and sometimes eight to 10 families are forced to share a room. Consequently, the lack of proper sanitation and other facilities is severely lacking. If the communities will be forced to remain in the (evacuation centers) for longer, we fear that the situation will become even worse for them,” Jain said.
He said the UNHCR hoped the situation would normalize so the evacuees could return to their homes.
Meanwhile, Senior Insp. Jeoffrey Sanchez, police chief of Maitum, South Cotabato, said three people, councilor in the village of Tuanadatu, were killed when they were ambushed by suspected BIFF members on Thursday.
But while the perpetrators were BIFF members, Sanchez said, the killings were not related to the Maguindanao attacks staged by the BIFF.
The ambush that killed Tuanadatu councilor Freddie Macate, his wife Polan, and Edgar Paciente, was triggered by a feud, he said.
Maitum Mayor Elsie Lucille Perrett urged Tuanadatu residents to stay calm because “it was just an isolated incident.”
The death toll in the Maguindanao clashes has risen to over 80, Asto said. They included at least five soldier and five non-combatants. He claimed the rest were rebels, claiming the number was based on an actual body count and reports of soldiers who claimed seeing rebels carrying away their dead.
On Friday, three more soldiers were wounded when BIFF forces attacked a military detachment in Barangay Bagan in Datu Unsay, Maguindanao.
Asto said the soldiers managed to repel the attackers after a 30-minute firefight.
(With a report from Aquiles Zonio, Inquirer Mindanao)