At least one camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) is closing on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao after the government last month ordered people to return to their villages. However, continuing clashes between Muslim separatist rebels and government troops could prevent more returns, aid workers and officials told IRIN.
In the poverty-stricken town of Talayan in Maguindanao Province, one elementary school converted into an IDP camp has been re-opened after 1,500 people agreed to return home, according to an International Organization for Migration (IOM) report obtained by IRIN on 8 March.
There are, however, "no immediate plans yet to close more evacuation sites since the security status in other places of origin still remains uncertain", the report stated, adding that more than 8,180 people were still being housed in six IDP sites in Talayan, a mostly Muslim town subdivided into 29 villages.
"IDPs are still frightened of the military presence in their home villages. Until security and safety of return are guaranteed, they will not return," the IOM report stated.
The government's February order to vacate the camps was meant to decongest areas and increase the flow of aid to others still in need. The government has said those affected are from areas where fighting has ceased and troops have re-established control.
The order caused concern among both foreign and local aid agencies, which warned that IDPs would be more vulnerable to being caught in the crossfire or to direct attacks by Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels.
The National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDDC) said that as of January, more than 112,559 people were still scattered across 170 evacuation sites in Mindanao, while another 201,488 were displaced but living with friends or relatives.
Maguindanao, Philippines - MILF fighters scour the perimeters of a rebel camp in the southern Philippines. Fresh fighting that has spilled to other parts of the south is threatening to complicate an already complex humanitarian situation
Photo: Jason Gutierrez/IRIN
MILF fighters scour the perimeters of a rebel camp in the southern Philippines. Clashes continue between the MILF and government forces
Peace talks in doubt
While foreign observers and specialists did not expect an immediate resumption of peace talks, the international community has called on both sides to agree to a ceasefire to enable humanitarian assistance to reach those in need.
The government's chief peace negotiator, Avelino Razon, has also hinted that authorities were open to the idea of dropping charges against the MILF leaders as a gesture of goodwill to get the stalled negotiations going again. The government has also officially informed Malaysia, which has been brokering the talks, it was willing to resume negotiations with the MILF.
But MILF negotiator Mohagher Iqbal told IRIN on 8 March that while the rebel central committee welcomed the gesture, tensions were still high on the ground and undermined such offers of peace.
"They are still continuing with heavy operations against the MILF in Lanao del Norte and Maguindanao," he said, adding that troops continued to fire on MILF positions, triggering scattered gun battles. "If the Philippine government wants a ceasefire, there should be a cessation of hostilities, but their own men are continuing with an offensive."
On 7 March, several soldiers were wounded and at least one MILF guerrilla killed in clashes near the town of Munai in Lanao del Norte Province, after elite government Scout Rangers caught a rebel unit. The clash was confirmed by the local infantry battalion, which said the firefight was initiated by the MILF, which allegedly ambushed the troops.
Colonel Jonathan Ponce, an army spokesman in Mindanao, said the military expected more casualties on the enemy side in the coming days and weeks, with no immediate end to the offensive.
"Clearing operations still continue; we expect to increase the number of fatalities on the rebels' side," Ponce told IRIN, further dashing any hopes that guns will fall silent soon.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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