MANILA, Philippines—The United Nations and the European Union have called for an immediate end to hostilities between government troops and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels in Zamboanga City, as the rising number of displaced residents and civilians killed in six days of fighting point to an emerging humanitarian crisis.
Condemning the “terror” that the fighting has inflicted on the residents of Zamboanga City, the Catholic bishops of Mindanao have also called for an end to the hostilities and negotiations for the release of about 100 hostages being held by Nur Misuari’s faction of the MNLF.
In a statement released by the United Nations on Friday, Luiza Carvalho, UN humanitarian coordinator in the Philippines, appealed for “the safe passage of civilians caught in the crossfire.”
“I urge all parties involved to respect and protect the rights of the civilian population, provide special attention to women and children and avoid unnecessary human suffering by reaching agreement to end the standoff,” Carvalho said.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that at least 16,000 have been forced to evacuate from conflict-stricken barangays while a total of 136,000 people are affected by the violence.
The Department of Social Welfare and Development said that as of Saturday the displaced families numbered 5,181, or 24,393 people.
Other reports placed the number of evacuees at more than 62,000.
The United Nations said it was prepared to help the Philippine government in bringing relief assistance to the evacuees.
The United States earlier provided P26.4 million in aid to provide for urgent water, shelter, sanitation and personal hygiene needs of the evacuees.
The European Union’s delegation in Manila also condemned the conflict, noting its impact on civilians, especially women and children.
“We strongly condemn any violation of the international law and human rights of the civilian population in Zamboanga, especially those of women and children. We sympathize with the wounded and hurt, and offer our condolences to the families of the victims of this violence,” the EU said in a statement.
The European bloc called for an “unconditional and immediate ending” of hostilities, the release of civilians still held hostage by rebel forces, and the safe access of humanitarian groups to those affected.
“We further urge that all parties recommit irrevocably and exclusively to the political process and ongoing negotiations to ensure a lasting, just and peaceful settlement in Mindanao,” the EU said.
The 18 Catholic archbishops and bishops of Mindanao issued a joint statement yesterday calling on both sides to negotiate the release of the hostages.
“We, Catholic bishops of Mindanao, are deeply saddened and disturbed by this terrible tragedy to human life and property. We express our solidarity with all those affected, Muslims and Christians alike,” the bishops said.
“We condemn the terror that has been inflicted on an entire city. We condemn the inhumane act of using hostages as human shields,” they said.
The bishops called the government and the rebels to discuss the deeper issues that “the armed groups wanted to raise by their action” regarding the ongoing peace negotiations between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the government.
“We appeal to the government, NGOs, religious groups, and civil society to provide assistance to the evacuees,” they said.
“As leaders of our Catholic communities, we join hands with other religious leaders—Muslims, Christians and lumad—in praying and working for peace. Peace, yes; war, never,” they added.
The Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches (PCEC), which is made up of more than 30,000 congregations, has also called for a peaceful resolution to the standoff in Zamboanga City.
In a statement, the PCEC called on President Aquino and Misuari to order their forces to end the fighting.
“We call on the evangelical churches, ministry organizations and relief agencies to work together with all humanitarian agencies for the protection of civilians and to provide emergency relief to people affected by this violence,” the PCEC said.