KOTA KINABALU: Filipino relief and health workers are facing an uphill task reaching displaced families trapped in the battle zone as fighting intensifies between government troops and a faction of the Moro rebel group on Jolo island.
Jolo officials fear for the lives of the families there as there is no immediate ceasefire in sight after a weeklong aerial and ground assault on the mountainous base of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) faction.
Humanitarian workers, including the local Red Cross chapter, also had a hard time reaching the trapped villagers because of the constant fire-fights and land mines planted in the conflict area.
Sulu Coordinating Council executive councillor Amilbahar Amilhassan told The Star yesterday said that the number of families fleeing the conflict zone was increasing day by day as fire-fights continued.
He said some 3,000 to 4,000 families were being cared for at evacuation centres in Jolo town but could not say how many more families were trapped in the crossfire.
Some officials said the number of displaced people was about 15,000 to 28,000 individuals and the figure could go up if the military continued its heavy bombardment on the hideout of the MNLF faction loyal to jailed Moro leader Nur Misuari.
We are concern that the displaced families may head to nearby islands and to Sabah, said Amilbahar, who hopes the OIC would step in to broker a ceasefire and provide assistance.
Moro organisations are also urging President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to halt the military action and to hold to an independent probe on allegations of human rights violations that has led to the latest outbreak of hostilities.
We call for the probe into the alleged massacre of Moro families, including women and children, and the execution of an ustaz, said Suara Bangsamoro party vice-head Aminah Ali Lidasan in a statement.
She said Arroyo must be concerned with the conditions of the civilians in the conflict areas and heed the call by Moro groups to stop the offensive that resulted in the death of soldiers and rebels since Feb 1.
According to Basilan representative Gerry Salaphuddin, who spoke based on his staff probe, alleged Abu Sayyaf bandits the military killed in a raid were all civilians.
One of those killed was a councillor in Miambung (in Jolo), said Salaphuddin, adding that the other civilians slain were a couple and their 14-year-old son.
Armed Forces Southern Command chief Lt-Gen Alberto Braganza has rejected the claims of the renegade Misuari faction leaders, Ustaz Bashir Jallani and Habier Malik, that his soldiers had massacred civilians.
Lt-Gen Braganza has stated that his military was conducting operations against Abu Sayyaf bandits linked to Osama bin Ladens al-Qaeda terror group when two of his soldiers were shot by a woman and that resulted in a fire-fight leading to the current conflict.
American military advisers, who had trained the anti-terrorism squad, have been warned by local Moro leaders to stay clear of directly participating in the military operations against the MNLF faction.
Using American high-tech equipment and satellite, the Philippines military have cut off communication links of the rebels near Panamo in Jolo.
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