Aid workers yesterday warned of a worsening humanitarian crisis in a major Philippine city wracked by more than two weeks of deadly street battles between Muslim rebels and soldiers.
The overnight deaths of three troops brought the official death toll from the conflict in Zamboanga to 173, as Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) guerrillas remained defiant despite being heavily outnumbered.
“We are increasingly alarmed by the situation and the growing needs of people caught up with violence,” UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in the Philippines Luiza Carvalho said in a statement.
“We are particularly concerned for the most vulnerable, especially the well-being of women and children,” she said.
The military said hundreds of MNLF rebels entered Zamboanga on Sept. 9, taking over several coastal villages, burning thousands of homes and taking dozens of civilians hostage, in a bid to derail peace talks.
More than 109,000 people have since been displaced in Zamboanga, the UN said, or about 10 percent of the population of the coastal city, which is one of the major trading hubs for the strife-torn southern Philippines.
“The situation in Zamboanga City ... is now a humanitarian crisis,” the UN statement said.
The UN highlighted particular concerns for 70,000 people sheltering in the city’s main sports complex, warning there was a serious risk of disease outbreaks and a dire need for food, drinking water and tents.
Red Cross volunteer Roseller Roxas, who has been helping at the sports stadium, said hygiene was becoming a major problem, with aid workers unable to cope with the huge crowd.
“We really need more portalets [portable toilets]. It is very unsanitary. Hygiene is really the big problem here,” he said.
“There are kids who don’t want to line up for the toilets, so they just defecate in the open,” he said.
There have already been outbreaks of measles, diarrhea and conjunctivitis in some evacuation centers, said Sheila Covarrubias, spokeswoman for the city’s Crisis Management Committee.
“We need more medicine. There are calls for donations, not only food, but also for medicine,” she said.
Meanwhile, the military pressed on with efforts to end the standoff against the remnants of the MNLF force who are hiding out in homes of devastated neighborhoods.
“The terrain is urban, there is a lot of rubble, a lot of houses to hide in,” military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala said.
“It’s very difficult for troops to operate in. The enemy can hide in areas where they can shoot from a high position,” he said.
Twenty-three security forces and 12 civilians have died in the conflict, Zagala said.
He said 138 MNLF troops had also been killed, while another 218 had been captured or surrendered.
After giving a daily commentary on how many MNLF rebels were still hiding out — figures that have since appeared to be underestimates — Zagala yesterday declined to say how many the military were still pursuing.
Last week, Zagala said thousands of soldiers were battling between 30 and 40 remaining guerrillas.