MANILA, Philippines – Aid workers warned Thursday, September 26, of a worsening humanitarian crisis in Zamboanga City racked by more than two weeks of deadly street battles between Muslim rebels and soldiers.
The overnight death of 3 soldiers 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 UN 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 with a rival Muslim rebel group.
More than 109,000 residents have since been displaced, 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 southern Philippines.
“The situation in Zamboanga City… is now a humanitarian crisis,” the UN statement said.
Growing risk of disease outbreaks
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.
Roseller Roxas, a Red Cross volunteer there, said hygiene was becoming a major problem with a serious shortage of toilets in particular.
“There are kids who don’t want to line up for the toilets so they just defecate in the open,” he told AFP.
There have already been outbreaks of measles, diarrhea and conjunctivitis in some evacuation centres, the spokeswoman for the city’s Crisis Management Committee, Sheila Covarrubias, told AFP.
“We need more medicine. There are calls for donations, not only food but also for medicine,” she said.
UN agencies and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) are providing some help but the government is insisting it can do most of the relief work itself.
“If international relief agencies want to help they’re welcome, but we feel we can handle it,” Secretary Ricky Carandang told AFP.
Representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the IOM said they expect the displaced people will need help for months.
Meanwhile, the military pressed on with efforts to mop up the remnants of the MNLF force who are hiding out in homes of devastated neighborhoods.
“The terrain is urban, there is a lot of rubble, a lot of houses to hide in,” military spokesman Lt Col Ramon Zagala told AFP.
Twenty-three police or soldiers and 12 civilians have died in the conflict, he said.
He said 138 MNLF fighters had also been killed, while another 218 had been detained.
After giving a daily commentary on how many MNLF rebels were still hiding out — figures that have since appeared to be underestimates — Zagala declined on Thursday to say how many the military were still pursuing.
Last week he said thousands of soldiers were battling about 30 to 40 remaining guerrillas.
The MNLF signed a peace treaty in 1996 that granted limited self-rule to the south’s Muslim minority.
However MNLF founder Nur Misuari deployed some of his men to Zamboanga to show opposition to a planned peace deal between the government and the remaining major Muslim rebel group, the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The MILF is close to signing a final peace pact, which Misuari believes would sideline the MNLF. – Rappler.com