Fighting floods as well as rebels
MANILA, 16 August 2012 (IRIN) - As overstretched authorities in the Philippine capital, Manila, grappled with rains that triggered fatal flooding across the city and surrounding areas last week, a separate man-made disaster erupted in the country’s troubled south, displacing thousands.
Hundreds of Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a breakaway rebel faction, attacked eight military outposts and detachments in the southern province of Maguindanao, triggering week-long battles that left at least six soldiers and policemen and about a dozen guerrillas dead.
The first wave of attacks on 5 August plunged 11 of Maguindanao's 36 towns into chaos, as BIFF guerrillas sabotaged power lines and took control of a major highway that is vital to the province’s commerce, blocking it by fighting.
The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council said close to 40,000 villagers were displaced at the peak of the fighting, about half of whom sought shelter in 20 nearby schools, mosques and churches converted into temporary evacuation centres.
One day after the Maguindanao crisis broke, torrential downpours caused by seasonal southwest monsoon rains interacting with a tropical storm 900km away flooded about 80 percent of Manila and large farming tracts to the north. More than 3.7 million people were affected, almost 100 were killed and over 300,000 are still in evacuation camps.
The twin disasters overwhelmed logistic capacity as well as relief and rescue officials, and Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman divided her time organizing mercy missions to both areas.
"There are still many evacuees in some areas, especially in the remote hinterlands [of Maguindanao] that people are trying to reach. There [is] still sporadic fighting in these areas, which makes it difficult for us," Soliman told IRIN.
The military said it is hunting BIFF members rumoured to be hiding in the evacuation camps by blending in with thousands of displaced persons.
Local officials said up to 10,000 of the 17,240 people who fled the fighting last week were staying in the evacuation centres. "They are still afraid to go back because they might be caught in the crossfire," Soliman said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it has reached 468 families in four evacuation centres with essential medicines and food items, as well as cooking kits, mats, tarpaulins and jerry cans.
"During our assessment on the ground in the last few days, it was clear that although these families were in evacuation centres, they still faced difficulties to cover themselves from the rainy weather," said Christoph Polajner, head of ICRC's mission in the south. "When they fled, these families left behind most of their possessions.”
The Muslim insurgency in Mindanao began in the early 1970s. Fighting has killed more than 150,000 people, while periodic flare-ups displace thousands at a time.
The government's chief peace adviser, Teresita Deles, said the attack by the BIFF was meant to "derail" ongoing peace talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a 12,000-strong more mainstream group that has dropped its bid for full independence. The rebels are working out the details of a proposed autonomous region before agreeing to end decades of conflict.
The BIFF splinter group is led by Ameril Umbrakato, a Middle East-trained guerrilla and a former MILF commander. Several hundred fighters followed him when he split from the MILF last year, after accusing his former comrades of betraying their goal of creating an Islamic homeland for the Muslim minority in the country's southern Mindanao Island.
Umbrakato's spokesman, Abu Misri, told IRIN that the recent attacks were in retaliation for the alleged unprovoked killing of one of their men by soldiers as he tried to cross a military checkpoint, unarmed, in June.
"They always accuse the Muslims of starting the fighting, when in truth we are always subjected to discrimination and military atrocities," Misri said by phone from an unknown location after troops overran the rebels’ main camp in the jungle on 15 August. "They have not defeated us - there are still many of us."
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