Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Troops, rebels guilty of abuses – AI

MANILA, Philippines - Government forces and Muslim separatists are both guilty of the murder and torture of civilians caught up in a long-running rebellion in southern Philippines, Amnesty International said Tuesday.

The rights watchdog described the conflict on Mindanao island as “having the highest number of new internally displaced persons worldwide” with more than 750,000 people forced from their homes in the last 17 months of the conflict.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians “faced the risk of unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrests, displacement and burning and destruction of their homes,” the watchdog said in a report.

Aurora Parong, Amnesty section director for the Philippines, said, “There is a human rights crisis in Mindanao.”

The report—titled Philippines: Shattered Lives, Beyond the 2008 to 2009 Mindanao Armed Conflict—cited that displaced persons in Mindanao were forced to live in camps or makeshift shelters, sometimes surrounded by a heavy military presence, positioning them at the forefront of hostilities when they should be spared from it in the first place. The report covered events from January to July 2009.

Mistaken identity

Parong, in a media briefing at Hotel Rembrandt in Quezon City, said there have been more than a dozen cases of civilians, mistakenly believed to be Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters, who were abducted, tortured or killed by government troops.

She added that men who returned to their ruined villages to salvage crops after attacks by the militants were often accosted by the military and accused of being combatants.

“There has been an alarming level [of these incidents] since fresh conflict began in August last year,” Parong said, stressing that many of the abuses had gone under-reported in the Philippine press.

The 12,000-strong MILF has been waging a rebellion for an independent Islamic state since 1978.

Peace talks were suspended last year when two MILF commanders led attacks across several mostly Christian areas after a court blocked a proposed deal that would have given the group control of a sprawling autonomous area.

The government has said more than 300 soldiers, MILF militants and civilians have been killed since then. Parong said both troops and MILF forces were blamed for torching civilian communities.

The MILF deserved equal blame, according to the report, citing that three of its commanders attacked civilians after the aborted signing of the memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain in August 2008. This triggered clashes between the government troops and the MILF until the ceasefire on July 29.

Worse, Parong added, were the violent acts by other armed groups, such the Abu Sayyaf, privately armed militias and powerful feuding clans.

Amnesty slams military

The watchdog also criticized the military for saying that it considered Muslim civilians in some camps for displaced people as enemy accomplices.

“That is an alarming situation that would make the IDPs [internally displaced persons] targets of security forces,” she said.

The report noted that as of July tens of thousands remained in the camps.

It said the displaced constantly lived in fear, many of them in deplorable conditions in makeshift roadside shelters or in overcrowded camps.

They have also become dependent on food rations from aid agencies, with the men unable to return to their farms. Children were forced out of their schools, while disease outbreaks were common.

In June, Manila discouraged aid agencies “from giving large quantities of food to displaced persons, in an effort to prevent food from being diverted to the hands of the MILF or sold to traders,” the report said.

Parong said, “While abuses have been reported, no one of the perpetrators has really been punished.”

Rebels’ denial

MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu denied the charges, and said that the rebels were only acting defensively against advancing military forces.

He noted that both the MILF and the government had recently agreed to impose unilateral ceasefires ahead of the planned resumption of peace talks.

“We are prepared for any investigations and in fact are encouraging the international community to visit us,” he told Agence France-Presse from his base in Mindanao, adding that rebels caught violating rules of engagement had been punished.

Military officials in Manila were not immediately available to comment.

Amnesty called on the European Union and the Organization of the Islamic Conference to support the establishment of human rights monitors to document abuses by both sides in the conflict.

Parong said this could be similar to a Malaysian-led effort that monitored ceasefire violations in the past. The Malaysian monitors pulled out from Mindanao last year citing frustration over continued violence. (AFP with a report from Llanesca Panti of The Manila Times)

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