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Renewed Fighting in Philippines Creates New Flood of Refugees - 2003-03-12

In the southern Philippines, the struggle between Islamic rebels and the government is again flaring. Last week, a bomb attack in Davao on the island of Mindanao killed more than 20 people and injured 150 others. This comes after the government last month launched an offensive against the largest rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front - which has been waging a 30-year secessionist battle. The renewed fighting has created a new flood of mostly Muslim refugees.

Misery and hardship confront both young and old here in the southern Philippines. These refugees have seen their villages become battlegrounds and their lives turned upside down. United Nations officials estimate 110,000 people have been forced out of their homes since renewed fighting between the military and Muslim rebels at the beginning of February.

This woman complains of harassment from the military. "They think we're rebels, she says, but we're only farmers," she said.

Father Bert Layson is a Catholic priest who has been here for five years and believes the young generation is suffering the most growing up amid the sights and sounds of war. "Even in school, Christian children and Muslim children will fight each other and I ask the Principal 'is this the phenomenon before? No, Father, this is a new phenomenon that is developing among our children.' When they see the multitude of war happening in their own backyard, the images go into their mind and they behave as if they are also rebels and soldiers and this is the kind of situation we're in now," said Father Layson. "And I pity the children because they carry these images and carry these sentiments against one another."

A long-standing cease-fire between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front collapsed more than a month ago. The bomb attack at Davao Airport - the worst in two years - has made this a very nervous region.

Roads across Mindanao are dotted with Army checkpoints. My bus leaves after an exhaustive search by soldiers.

I was with a group taken to a rebel hideaway near the town of Cotabatu to meet a senior commander of the MILF, the largest separatist group fighting for an independent Muslim state here for three decades. Mohagher Iqbal told VOA the MILF had nothing to do with last week's explosion and the military is just using it as an excuse to crack down even harder in the region. "The Moro Islamic Liberation Front is a revolutionary organization," he said. "It is a people's war and we're fighting for the people's rights and we don't intend to hurt the people so what had happened at the Davao International Airport is extremely an anti-people activity so we condemn whoever does that barbaric act for killing innocent people. It has given the government and the armed forces of the Philippines enough pretext not to continue with the peace process."

The government believes the MILF was responsible for the bombing and has issued arrest warrants for its leaders. Senior politicians are promising to crush the rebels as the military crackdown goes on with heavy movements of tanks, armored personnel carriers and heavy artillery.

The governor of Cotabatu Province, Emmanuel Pinol, says for the MILF, time is running out. "Given their activities right now; bombings of cities, killing of civilians, maiming of civilians, they are a terrorist organization," he said. "But let me tell you this, there are still members of the MILF who may be moderates whom we could talk to and we're looking at this as a last ray of hope in being able to resolve this problem. It will continue for as long as we are not able to address the inequities and sins of the past."

For the refugees here, life just gets harder. The threat of disease grows by the day. Most people fear the security situation will only get worse in the months ahead. Many have seen hopes for peace rise and fade before and there is no sign this time it will be different.