Friday, May 29, 2009

Disappearances, abuse rise in Central Mindanao

DATU PIANG, Philippines - Sahid Makmud was waiting for a Red Cross truck, which delivered food for hundreds of displaced families in the southern Philippines, when armed men in military uniform took him and two others away.

For almost a week, his pregnant wife and younger brother searched for him without success at army bases in Maguindanao province on the southern island of Mindanao. The army denied any knowledge about Makmud's disappearance.

Makmud's body was eventually found on the edge of marshlands not far from his home.
Residents said his killing, and the likely death of the other two men, are part of a growing pattern of human rights abuses in the region. They blame the army for the wrongdoings.
"There were signs that he (Makmud) was tortured to death," said his brother, Saudi.

The Philippine military has been regularly accused of human rights abuses and disappearances, including in a report by the U.N. special rapporteur on political killings.

The country's independent human rights body has said the situation improved this year, but residents in the south say not in central Mindanao, the battleground between rogue Muslim rebels and the largely Christian-dominated military.

Immediately after Makmud's body was found, dozens of families from his village in Maguindanao province fled to shelters. Tales of similar disappearances, murders and other human rights abuses across the oil and gas-rich wetlands in the region have triggered similar waves of displacement.

More than 1,500 families are camped out at a coconut plantation in Datu Odin Sinsuat town, making it the largest shelter for internal refugees in the province, said Nurhassim Abas, head of a local disaster agency.

"They feel much safer here because our community was further away from the conflict zone," Abas told Reuters. "Soldiers seldom patrol this area and it is more accessible to humanitarian and aid agencies delivery food, medicines and other relief goods."

Rebel factions seeking peace talks with the government say the military was forcing people to flee to a controlled area to deny Muslim guerrillas access to their support bases.

"That's hamletting," Mohaqher Iqbal, a senior leader in the largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), told Reuters. He was referring to a military term that means the forced grouping of villagers in an effort to deny the enemy access to food, cash and other support.

"That's clearly a human rights violation."

Rogue MILF

Muslim rights groups have noted that some army units now based in the south were transferred from provinces where communist rebels are active. Many of the abuse cases documented in previous years have related to the crackdown on leftists.

Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Ponce, spokesman of the army division operating in Maguindanao, dismissed reports of rising cases of rights violations as propaganda by the MILF.

"Our soldiers strictly respect human rights and observe the laws of armed conflict," he said. "We are not trying to force the people to flee from their homes. In fact, we have been helping rebuild communities in areas where we restored peace and order."

Ponce said the latest wave of displacement in Maguindanao was caused by rogue MILF rebels who have started to attack villages in search for food and other supplies. (Manny Mogato / Reuters)

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