Philippines: fighting between army and Islamic rebels, more than 20 dead and 130,000 displaced
by Santosh Digal
More than 800 guerrillas are ensconced in 15 majority Christian villages in North Cotabato. The violence has created an enormous humanitarian crisis, and the Red Cross is preparing to send food and water. Part of the Filipino Church is in favor of the agreement on regional autonomy in Mindanao.

Manila (AsiaNews) - Today, the Filipino army launched a massive military operation to wipe out rebel troops of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is refusing to abandon a number of Christian villages in the south of the country.

More than 800 guerrillas are ensconced in 15 Christian villages in North Cotabato, engaging in fierce fighting with government forces: the official sources say one army soldier and two rebels have died, adding to the 18 killed as of Sunday, August 10. There have also been one casualty and numerous injuries among the civilians, who are now facing a serious humanitarian crisis: more than 130,000 people have abandoned their homes, including many Muslims, while the Red Cross is sending medicine, food, and drinking water.

According to the army, there will be no escalation of the violence, and voting will proceed normally in the six provinces of the autonomous majority Muslim region of Mindanao (ARMM). The separatists of the MILF are instead asking for the electoral round to be canceled, and say they want more territory under their control, and the possibility of disposing of the energy and mineral resources that the area offers.

Last week, the proposed agreement between the government and the MILF on the creation of an autonomous region in Mindanao (ARMM), with the annexation by referendum of 712 new villages, was blocked by the supreme court, following a rise in protests that united both Christians and Muslims against the treaty, because a draft of the agreement had not been made public.

Yesterday, partial openness to the agreement was expressed by two bishops of the Filipino episcopal conference, according to whom the document is "a step forward toward peace", in a region marked by "conflicts for too long". Orlando Quevedo, archbishop of Cotabato, and Antonio Ledesma, archbishop of Cagayan de Oro, express their "support" for the treaty, a serious attempt to "balance national sovereignty and satisfy the aspiration for greater autonomy in the territories of Bangsamoro". The two bishops nonetheless specify that the peace agreement between the MILF and the government "still needs to be discussed more extensively, and explained to the public".