Peace advocates call for end to Maguindanao fighting

WORRIED about the resulting humanitarian crisis, nongovernment groups are calling on the military to halt its offensive in Maguindanao to stem the tide of civilian evacuees fleeing the fighting.

On Tuesday, at least 10 peace networks issued a statement on an "urgent humanitarian appeal for the suspension of military operations" which they said have taken a heavy toll on civilians.

Among the networks that signed the statement are Initiatives for International Dialogue (IID), Caucus of Development NGO Networks (CODE-NGO), and the Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society (CBCS).

The armed forces' all-out offensive against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) is on its third week, and has forced some 124,000 people out of their homes.

The offensive started in North Cotabato on February 25, in a bid to pursue Abdul Basit Usman, a Filipino member of the terrorist group Jemah Islamiyah (JI) believed to be coddled by the BIFF.

The offensive has since shifted to Maguindanao. So far, over 100 BIFF members and six soldiers have been reported killed.

"We express our gravest concern over the glaring civilian protection and safety issues caused by the operation," the statement from the peace advocates read.

"We are alarmed about the use of artillery shelling and airstrikes with bombs reportedly dropped near civilian homes."

"We categorically state that a humanitarian crisis is already staring us in the face as an effect of the prolonged military action against (the) lawless elements," the groups added.

The Humanitarian Emergency Action and Response Team of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (Armm-Heart) has reported that as of March 16, 123,537 people or 24,714 families have been displaced by fresh fighting in the region.

Armm-Heart said the evacuees come from the towns of Mamasapano, where the Jan. 25 bloody clash between police commandos and Moro rebels took place, Datu Salibo, Shariff Saidona Mustapha, Shariff Aguak, Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Talayan, Datu Anggal, Midtimbang, Guindulungan, Datu Unsay, Talitay, Rajah Buayan, Datu Odin Sinsuat, Datu Abdullah Sangki, Datu Piang, and Datu Hoffer.

The number of displaced persons account for about 10 percent of Maguindanao's population.

Close to 22,000 families are in 75 evacuation camps. The rest are staying in the homes of relatives.

The peace groups also called for a review of the terms of reference of the Joint Task Force Central, the coordinative body between the police and military that is overseeing the law enforcement operations against the BIFF.

"We are alarmed by the roll out of operations plan with no specific timetable hence we respectfully demand disclosure by the joint task force on the progress of its operations," the groups said.

On Tuesday, Sen. Paolo Benigno Aquino IV urged government to ensure the safety of the evacuees.

"Their needs must be immediately addressed, including temporary shelter, food, water, clothing, alternative livelihood, among others. The government must zero in on the welfare of the children, who are the most affected and vulnerable during armed conflict, by providing them milk, medicine, psycho-social intervention and others," Aquino said.
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