MANILA (Reuters) - The United Nations said on Wednesday it was concerned about a humanitarian crisis in the southern Philippines where a ferocious battle between government forces and Muslim rebels has displaced about 160,000 people.
“The Secretary-General appeals for restraint, protection of all civilians as well as access for the provision of speedy humanitarian assistance to the affected population,” the statement read.
Entire communities have fled 15 villages in North Cotabato province since late Sunday to escape military airstrikes and mortar fire aimed at Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels holed up in North Cotabato.
Manila had accused the MILF of occupying Catholic farmlands in the region and had given them an ultimatum to leave.
The MILF said on Wednesday its forces had moved out of the villages in North Cotabato but accused the military of shelling Muslim areas in the province.
An army spokesman said there was a lull in fighting as soldiers enter deserted villages. Their progress is slow because of the threat of landmines.
“Seven villages have been cleared and we’ll clear eight more today,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Julieto Ando.
Most aid agencies have been unable to access the region because of the battle.
“The Red Cross has finally been able to get in. We’re preparing to feed 85,000 people for the next five days,” Richard Gordon, the head of the Philippines’ Red Cross, told Reuters.
“We are the only ones there, other than the government.”
While civilian casualties have been low — currently estimated at 6 — disaster officials are worried about sanitation, the spread of disease and hunger among the refugees.
Only around 10 percent of the refugees are estimated to be in evacuation centers with the rest either camped outside or staying with relatives.
Gordon said some displaced people might prefer to remain outdoors for fear of airstrikes.
“Some evacuation centers are cramped and they may be fearing that if the centers are bombed they will all be hit.”
Despite this week’s violent clash, neither side is talking about a return to all-out war.
Analysts have said both sides were flexing their military muscles after yet another setback in long-running talks to end a near 40-year separatist conflict in Mindanao that has killed more than 120,000 people.
A territorial deal between the two sides looks set to be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court within the next few months.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said this week she would support altering the constitution to turn the Philippines into a federal republic to ensure the creation of a homeland for Muslims in the south.
But her opponents say amending the constitution would allow Arroyo to stay in power beyond her final presidential term, which ends in mid-2010, and continue to give her immunity from prosecution over long-running corruption allegations.
Arroyo has denied that she wants to stay in power beyond 2010 but revival of proposed charter change, or “cha cha” as it is known locally, dominated the local media on Wednesday, overshadowing the plight of the refugees.
“We can’t believe the news that we are talking about federalism again,” said Gordon. “There are other more important things happening right now.”
Reporting by Manny Mogato; Additional reporting by Rosemarie Francisco; Writing by Carmel Crimmins; Editing by David Fogarty