UN worried about Philippines’ humanitarian crisis

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The United Nations voiced concern Wednesday over the fate of more than 100,000 Filipinos displaced by two weeks of fighting between government troops and Muslim rebels, saying they were at risk of disease from crowded and unsanitary conditions in evacuation centers.

The Philippine government said the crisis in southern Zamboanga city was nearing an end with the surrender of another large batch of the insurgents, who took nearly 200 civilians hostage on Sept. 9 after a failed attempt to occupy the city.

The U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator in the Philippines, Luiza Carvalho, said that the fighting has left about 132 people dead, affected 158,000 people and destroyed more than 10,000 homes. About 109,000 people are displaced in Zamboanga and almost 19,000 in neighboring Basilan province, she said.

“We are increasingly alarmed by the situation and the growing needs of people caught up with violence,” Carvalho said in a statement. She said that the displaced included around 70,000 staying in the main sports complex in Zamboanga “in desperately overcrowded conditions and insufficient sanitation facilities.”

She said there was a risk of a disease outbreak while food, drinking water, health services and cooking utensils were in short supply.

The Philippine military said that the operation to flush out the remaining rebels and free the last hostages was nearing an end. Thousands of troops continued to clear out the last two of five coastal communities where most of the fighting has been centered.

The displaced — nearly 10 percent of the population of the bustling port city — relocated to about 36 evacuation centers as rebels set fire to homes and artillerty shells and stray bullets rained down.

According to authorities, 110 rebels, 18 security forces and 15 civilians have been killed since Sept. 9. Most of the about 200 civilian hostages have been freed and military officials said they could not tell how many were still being held by the rebel holdouts of the Moro National Liberation Front.

Another group of 36 rebels surrendered Wednesday and four others were killed, said regional military spokesman Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc. One soldier also died, but the rebel commander who led the attack, Habier Malik, was still refusing to give up, Cabunoc said.

It’s the most serious fighting in years between rebels and government forces in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation’s south, the scene of a decades-old struggle for self-rule by minority Muslims.

The rebel faction involved in the fighting dropped its demand for a separate Muslim state and signed an autonomy deal with the government in 1996, but the guerrillas did not lay down their arms and later accused the government of reneging on a promise to develop long-neglected Muslim regions.

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