Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Fighting intensifies in Southern Philippines

The Philippine army has stepped up an offensive against a rebel Islamic group in the southern marshlands of the country. The fighting has caused thousands of people to flee their homes and creates an aid and refugee emergency.

From Reuters Alert Net, writer Manny Mogato focuses on the refugee situation as well as effect the fighting has on investment in the region.

The offensive and the refugee problem have further pushed back prospects of peace in the oil and gas-rich marshlands of central Mindanao, leaving it mired in poverty. Officials say the social indicators of the six provinces in the region are the lowest in the Philippines.

Last year, a U.N. report said at least 600,000 people fled their homes in the area, the largest number of internally displaced people anywhere in the world.

The numbers dropped subsequently but have crept back to about 500,000 since early May, local officials say. People are crammed into mosques, schools, public gymnasiums and in makeshift houses.

"We didn't expect the sudden rise in the number of displaced families in the last two weeks," said Mishael Argonza of the U.N. World Food Programme, pointing to lists of families fleeing from their homes and farms in Maguindanao, one of the six provinces.

"We were actually expecting the numbers to come down from about 36,000 families to only about 20,000 families by next month. But, we're seeing more people flocking to our camps and many of them from villages not affected by conflict before."

Ishak Mastura, an economic adviser to the governor of the Muslim Mindanao region, said the nine-month conflict has not only destroyed the local economy but pushed back any prospect of major investments in the southern Philippines.

"Because of the conflict situation, no investment will come in, no matter how attractive the strategic resources are in the area," he told Reuters.

The 45,000-hectare wetlands in central Mindanao are believed to have huge deposits of oil and gas, while copper and gold are abundant in Mindanao's mountain regions.

"No investor in his right mind will be prepared to deal with the risks, such as the issue of conflict and (the region) being difficult to govern," Mastura said. "The risks are too many and the returns may not be as high."

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