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UN Voices Concern About Conflict in Southern Philippines

The United Nations has expressed concern over a developing humanitarian crisis in the southern Philippines, after fierce fighting between government troops and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front displaced some 160,000 people. VOA Correspondent Nancy-Amelia Collins reports from Jakarta.

The United Nations said, Wednesday, it is "concerned about the unfolding humanitarian crisis" in the southern Philippines, after entire communities were forced to flee villages in North Cotabato on the southern Philippine island, Mindanao.

In a statement, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed for "restraint, protection of all civilians, as well as access for the provision of speedy humanitarian assistance."

At least 160,000 people have fled 15 mainly Christian villages in North Cotabato Province, since Sunday, after the military launched air and ground attacks on positions where hundreds of guerillas from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front have been positioned since last month.

The government says it has retaken all 15 villages, but villagers have yet to begin to return home.

The government estimates only 10 percent of the displaced are staying in evacuation centers, with the rest lodging with relatives or camping outside.

The renewed violence in the southern Philippines follows a decision last week by the country's supreme court to suspend a deal which would give the MILF a larger homeland and greater autonomy.

The MILF has been negotiating a deal with the government that would extend the Muslim homeland and grant it wider political and economic power.

MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu told VOA his organization remains committed to the peace process.

"Definitely, we are willing to abide by the rules, meaning as far as the relationship of the government troops and the MILF is concerned, there is always a provision provided for under the ceasefire agreement. Meaning we will abide [by] whatever the rules [are] under that agreement," Kabalu said.

The MILF has been fighting for independence since the last 1960s, in a conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 120,000 people.

The Philippines is predominantly Roman Catholic, but five percent of the population is Muslim, mostly living in the impoverished south.