The sad thing is that most media coverage here is being concentrated on the charter change moves of the president, Humanitarian Crisis be damned.

Evacuees trickle back to villages in North Cotabato

By MANNY MOGATO and KAREN LEMA
Reuters

MANILA – Families displaced by fighting between government troops and Muslim separatists in the southern Philippines slowly returned to their bombed-out villages on Thursday but many remained in shelters, too frightened to leave.

About 160,000 people had fled their farmlands in North Cotabato province and adjoining areas since last weekend to escape military airstrikes and mortar fire aimed at Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels holed up in the area.

Military operations ended on Wednesday and the army is trying to coax families back, escorted by armoured vehicles and troops.

“We expect a considerable number of people to return home today. Since late Wednesday they were slowly going back, we are assuring them of their safety,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Julieto Ando, an army spokesman.

The local government said about 20,000 people had made their way back but there were conflicting reports on numbers and some aid agencies said many refugees were still too frightened to leave.

Only about 10 percent of the displaced are in evacuation centres with most people staying with relatives or friends.

“The security situation has improved but it will probably take a bit of time before people feel secure enough to return home en masse,” Stephen Anderson, country director for the World Food Programme (WFP), told Reuters.

“We have to be looking ahead to people having to potentially rebuild their lives, a lot of houses, villages have been destroyed.”

Bomb disposal teams were combing through the villages to make sure they were clear of any landmines or booby traps.

A way of life

The government launched its attack on the MILF after accusing the rebels of occupying villages in North Cotabato. Six civilians were estimated to have been killed in the fighting while 46 rebels and 5 soldiers were estimated to have died, according to the military.

The MILF has said five of its members were killed.

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 the southern region of Mindanao that has killed more than 120,000 people.

Muslims in the south of the largely Catholic Philippines have been fighting for some measure of independence since the late 1960s in one of Southeast Asia’s most intractable conflicts.

Earlier this week, the United Nations said it was concerned about an unfolding humanitarian crisis in the south.

But Manila dismissed the U.N.’s characterisation of the situation and said people in the poorest region of the country were used to conflict.

“Some of them need a little counselling, most do not. A lot of them are used to it. It’s not the first time that this has happened,” Social Welfare Secretary Esperanza Cabral told Reuters.

“They already know if there’s an exchange of gun fire, they should leave their homes, then if the shooting ends, then they go back to their homes, that’s a way of life in Mindanao.”

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