Clashes in the south, Church helping the displaced
by Santosh Digal
President Arroyo announces peace talks with MILF rebels but launches a major military offensive against other rebel groups. Bishop of Jolo says Church ready to help the population.

Manila (AsiaNews) – Peace talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebel group will resume next August 22. They were interrupted in September of last year. Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye made the announcement after President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said that the army was involved in a large-scale offensive against separatists in Sulu Province. However, she ordered the military to avoid clashes with either the MILF or the Moro National Liberation Front. Despite the dangerous situation, Mgr Angelito Rendon Lampon, bishop of Jolo, said that the Church was ready to help the population caught between the two sides.

Mindanao refugees in Basilan and Sulu, where clashes last week left some 60 soldiers and rebels dead, number about 17,000 people, the National Disaster Coordinating Council reported.

“Red Cross and DSWD personnel have to be escorted by the military in delivering relief goods to the affected families,” Bishop Lampon said, adding that the Vicariate’s Social Action Center cannot go into the affected areas without military escorts.

Pinky Suarez, head of the Sulu Philippine National Red Cross, said the group did not have clearance to conduct assessment and deliver relief assistance to the conflict affected areas.

However, “we are in touch with local government officials and we are willing to help in whatever way we could,” Mgr Lampon said. Close relations with the local clergy, who are largely drawn from ethnic Tausugs, could make it easier to bring help since local rebel groups are related to the Tausug.

Still prudence prevails. "Our strategy today is to field all-Filipino clergy in Sulu and assign foreign missionaries to safer places such as retreat houses, Bishop Lampon said.

Atilano Ade, director of the Office of Civil Defense said that the number of displaced people is rising. In Sulu alone, Parang had a total of 645 families or 4,414 individuals displaced, followed by Maimbung with 184 families or 1,054 individuals and Indanan with 325 families or 2,006 individuals.

But Hadja Jainab Abdulmajid, who is in charge of the Sulu Area Coordinating Center for Disaster, said their records showed only 5,127 people displaced.

In Basilan, Ade said Albarka town had a total of 990 families or 6,399 individuals displaced, while Sumisip had 256 families or 1,488 evacuees, Tipo-tipo with 43 families or 215 individuals and Ungkaya Pukan with 130 families or 650 individuals.