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Mindanao in Worst Conflict Since 2003

The International Committee of the Red Cross says up to half a million people have been affected by fighting and tens of thousands have fled their homes on Mindanao Island in southern Philippines. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from ICRC headquarters in Geneva.

Fighting between the Philippines armed forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front broke out on Mindanao on August 10. The International Committee of the Red Cross says the intensity of the armed conflict is fierce and has forced more than 130,000 people to flee their homes.

ICRC Spokeswoman Carla Haddad says most people were in such a state of panic, they fled with just the clothes on their back. She says some displaced people have returned home, but many are fearful of renewed clashes and remain in evacuation centers.

"With the breakdown of the peace process, the population of Mindanao is likely to keep being affected by this conflict. So, the ICRC is stepping up its operations, its humanitarian operations on the ground," said Haddad. "The aim is to assist up to 325,000 people until the end of this year."

Haddad says the ICRC has been working with the Philippines National Red Cross since the conflict erupted to assist the displaced. She says they have provided food, water, shelter, essential household goods and medical assistance to 60,000 people so far.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front has been fighting for a separate Islamic State since 1978. In 2003, it signed a ceasefire with Manila to open the way for peace talks.

Fighting resumed nearly a month ago, after the Philippine Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order against signing a peace agreement. Following that decision, President Gloria Arroyo dissolved a negotiating panel seeking a political solution to the 30-year rebellion.

Analysts fear this will trigger increased violence across the southern island of Mindanao.

Haddad says villagers who have been sheltering the displaced are under enormous strain. She says the rainy season has begun, making an already terrible situation even worse.

"And, it is a sad Ramadan for many people there. People are sheltering in tiny tents made of palm leaves and covered with tiny plastic sheeting, and the displaced are complaining from the cold. We also have seen that many have sheltered in local schools," added Haddad. "And, in some of the villages, it is time for children to go back to school. So, the municipalities have asked them to empty the schools during the day so the children of the village could resume school. And, these people, these displaced people stay outside and their children do not have access to school either."

Haddad calls this an under-reported conflict. She says the international community is unaware of the misery the fighting is causing the civilian population. She says the ICRC aims to help about 325,000 people by the end of the year.