Number of war evacuees rises to 123,000
DAVAO CITY, Philippines—The number of people displaced by armed conflict in Maguindanao province has reached more than 123,000 as government forces continue their combat operations, records from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) government showed.
According to the ARMM-Humanitarian Emergency Action Response Team (ARMM-Heart), the figure surpassed the 100,000 who left their communities in 2003 due to fighting between government forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the provinces of Maguindanao and North Cotabato.
The latest all-out offensive declared by Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. on Feb. 25 is aimed at suppressing the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and arresting suspected Jemaah Islamiyah-linked bomber, Basit Usman.
On Jan. 25, 44 Special Action Force (SAF) commandos, who were on a mission to arrest international terrorists Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as “Marwan,” and Amin Baco, also known as “Jihad,” and Usman, were killed in a clash with Moro rebels in Mamasapano town in Maguindanao. Seventeen MILF fighters and three civilians were also killed.
Marwan was slain by the SAF commandos, but Baco and Usman escaped.
The ARMM-Heart said operations against the BIFF, which broke away from the MILF, had forced at least 24,714 families to flee their homes in 15 towns in Maguindanao. The number accounts for about 10 percent of the province’s total population.
Close to 22,000 families are being hosted in 75 evacuation camps, while the rest are staying in the homes of relatives.
In the town of Shariff Saydona Mustapha, 2,670 families were displaced, while 2,637 families evacuated Mamasapano.
The ARMM-Heart documented 2,576 families displaced in Datu Salibo and 2,774 in Shariff Aguak.
The number of displaced families in Datu Saudi Ampatuan reached 3,459 and in Guindulungan, 1,160 families; Talayan, 2,358; Talitay, 2,218; Datu Unsay, 1,455; and Datu Anggal Midtimbang, 1,791.
A total of 555 families from Mamasapano sought shelter in the nearby town of Rajah Buayan.
On Thursday, the ARMM-Heart documented at least 79 families displaced in Datu Hoffer Ampatuan, 110 families in Datu Odin Sinsuat, 553 families in Datu Piang and 319 families in Datu Abdullah Sangki.
The evacuees are occupying makeshift tents in areas identified as “safe battle sites.”
The ARMM-Heart has been distributing relief packs, containing rice, instant noodles and canned sardines, for each family. Each food pack is expected to last four days.
In Davao City, nongovernment groups have called on the military to stop its offensive to prevent a humanitarian crisis.
On Tuesday, at least 10 peace networks, united under the umbrella campaign, All-out Peace, issued an “urgent humanitarian appeal” for the suspension of military operation, saying the fighting was displacing civilians.
Among the signatories of the statement of appeal are Initiatives for International Dialogue, Caucus of Development NGO Networks and Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society.
“We express our gravest concern over the glaring civilian protection and safety issues caused by the operation … . We are alarmed about the use of artillery shelling and air strikes with bombs reportedly dropped near civilian homes,” the statement said.
“We categorically state that a humanitarian crisis is already staring us in the face as an effect of the prolonged military action against [the] lawless elements.”
In another statement, Sen. Bam Aquino urged the government to ensure the safety of people displaced by the military operations.
“Their needs must be immediately addressed, including temporary shelter, food, water, clothing, alternative livelihood, among others. The government must zero in on the welfare of the children, who are the most affected and vulnerable during armed conflict, by providing them milk, medicine, psychosocial intervention and others,” Aquino said.
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