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The BBC's Simon Ingram:
"The civilians living under the guns can only cower in fear"
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Thursday, 29 June, 2000, 12:14 GMT 13:14 UK
Civilians caught in Philippines conflict

The Philippine army launched its offensive two months ago
Simon Ingram in the southern Philippines

In the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, the army is pressing ahead with a two-month old offensive against Islamic separatist guerrillas which has killed or injured hundreds of combatants and civilians.

While the army claims victory, tens of thousands of villagers have been forced to leave their homes.

The fighting is the latest phase in a long-running insurgency by Mindanao's Muslim minority who demand independence from Manila.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (Milf) has had to give up swathes of territory to the army.

However, the conflict is unlikely to be resolved on the battlefield.

Life under the gun

Refugees live in squalor in an encampment
Refugees live in squalor in an encampment

The civilians living under the guns can only cower in fear.

In the Mindanao town of Pikit, one camp was supposed to be a place of safety.

Instead the battle is going on right over their heads.

Some Muslim villagers have spent more than a month in squalid conditions. There is little doubt who they blame for their plight.

"It all began when the army decided to bombard our village" according to one woman.

"Now we're stuck here until its over."

Having captured large areas of rebel-held territory, the generals are congratulating themselves on a job well done.

Refugee: Now we're stuck here until its over
Refugee: Now we're stuck here until its over
Even so, the army's commanding officer, General Angelo Reyes, admits that a formidable challenge still lies ahead.

"We're not saying that by countering or defeating the military arm of the rebellion that will finish the problem," he says.

"That's perhaps the easy part. The more difficult part is after you have won the military side of it."

Back in the evacuee camp, there is a conciliatory gesture from the authorities, as a consignment of rice is distributed.

It is the first food to arrive here in almost a week.

Winning hearts and minds

It will take more than bags of rice to win over the hearts and minds of these people.

A rare consignment of rice is delivered to a refugee
A rare consignment of rice is delivered to refugees

Many Muslims in Mindanao see the government not the Milf as the author of their troubles, and changing that perception will be no easy matter.

The government hopes the army's successes will force the Muslim population to abandon its dream of a separate state, and accept increased autonomy instead.

Eid Kabalu, the Milf spokesman says the proposal is a non-starter.

"There is nothing new," he says.

"The government actually has no formula or solution in addressing the problem of the Bangsa Moro [the indigenous Muslim inhabitants] in the southern Philippines."

"And so we expect that the Milf will reject this, the people will reject this."

Economic progress

What Mindanao and its people need above all is economic progress.

This fertile land has suffered years of neglect, and new investments - such as a rubber processing plant near Kidapawan - have become a rarity.

Milf spokesman: The government... has no solution
Milf spokesman: The government... has no solution
At the factory's inauguration, Anthony Sassin, the presidential representative for Mindanao has concerns about frightening off would-be developers.

"We want peace, and with peace, when you have it, comes development and prosperity and a lot of the sectors in the troubled areas want peace."

A welcome moment of optimism apart, hopes for a political settlement to the Mindanao conflict seem forlorn.

For now, the wishes of ordinary people have little chance of drowning out the sound of battle.

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