More than 120,000 people have fled their homes in Mindanao since fighting broke out between government troops and Islamic militants in late January, the UN refugee agency said.
“UNHCR is concerned about the safety of civilians as the conflict spreads into local villages,” Babar Baloch, spokesperson of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees told reporters in Geneva.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines launched an offensive earlier this year against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a rebel group fighting for an independent Muslim homeland in Mindanao in the immediate aftermath of the January 25 Mamasapano incident where 44 policemen were killed.
Last week, the military claimed that one-third of the supposedly 300-strong BIFF have been “wiped out” in the ongoing military offensive in Mindanao.
President Benigno Aquino 3rd had ordered the military to hunt down remaining members and leaders of the bandit group, including five international terrorists whom they are reportedly coddling.
Armed Forces Chief of Staff, Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. last Monday said the President has approved a P67-million initial fund for development projects in the South as soon as the BIFF is decimated.
“[The President’s order was] to hunt down all the BIFF [rebels]. So as of now, [100 of them have been accounted for, so there are more of them out there]. Of course, the high-value terrorists, we are still running after them, we will continue the operation],” the military chief said.
The ongoing offensive, including attacks with artillery and helicopter gunships, has taken place in poor farming areas.
Baloch said an estimated 13 municipalities in Maguindanao and North Cotabato had been affected by the eight weeks of clashes.
More than 120,000 had been displaced and sought shelter in schools, public buildings and madrasas (Islamic schools), he said.
But he acknowledged, “the estimated number of displaced could be higher, since it does not include people hosted by relatives and friends.”
Baloch also warned that the numbers were “expected to grow as the fighting extends to the local communities … already hosting many of the displaced.”
The volatile security situation is meanwhile blocking UNHCR from accessing many of the affected areas, he said.
UNHCR expressed particular concern for the safety of civilians, including women and children, stuck in the conflict area.
While civilians did not seem to be targeted directly, they were getting caught in the crossfire, Baloch told the French news agency, Agence France Presse.
“Women and children could potentially be exposed to exploitation and abuse,” he warned, pointing out that many found themselves without income or community protection, and with very limited access to shelter, food, medicine and water.
“UNHCR appeals to all parties of the conflict to ensure the safety of civilians while the law and order operation is underway,” he said.