More than 80,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in a southern Philippine province due to fighting between government troops and Muslim separatist rebels who occupied several villages, a disaster relief agency said Sunday ( dpa ).
The National Disaster Coordinating Council said it has launched relief efforts for 16,057 families or more than 80,000 individuals displaced by the hostilities in North Cotabato province, 930 kilometres south of Manila.
Anthony Golez, a spokesman for the agency, said a command post was set up in Libungan town "to facilitate a systematic relief effort."
Golez said the refugees came from five towns in North Cotabato, where hundreds of Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels took over villages last month, burning homes and seizing farm animals.
The rebel encroachment escalated last week after the Supreme Court halted the signing of a controversial Muslim homeland deal between the government and the MILF, which would have expanded an existing autonomous Muslim region in the southern Philippines.
The rebels agreed to withdraw from the villages, but the pullout has been delayed by sporadic fighting with government security forces dispatched to ensure that the guerrillas vacate the occupied areas.
MILF Vice Chairman Ghadzali Jaafar said some rebels have become "emotional" and refused to leave after hearing criticisms over the stalled homeland deal.
"We are trying to calm them down," he said. "We are talking to them, explaining to them the primacy of the peace process."
The signing of the ancestral domain agreement would have been a crucial step towards resuming formal peace talks between the Philippine government and the MILF, which have been stalled since December.
Under the deal, the Philippines would hold a plebiscite in 2009 to expand the existing six-province Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao to include an additional of more than 700 villages.
The proposal also provides for the establishment of a new form of government for Muslims after a final peace deal is reached.
Critics alleged the deal violated the constitution and asked the Supreme Court to stop the signing. A hearing is scheduled for next week on the merits of the petition to nullify the agreement.
The 11,000-strong MILF has been fighting for the establishment of an independent Islamic state in Mindanao since 1978. It agreed to hold peace talks with the government in 1997.