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Army and rebels both slammed for Zamboanga abuses

Human Rights Watch accuses MNLF of human shield war crimes

Army and rebels both slammed for Zamboanga abuses

Rebels surrender in Zamboanga City on Thursday (photo courtesy of PNP)

Joe Torres and reporters, Manila and Zamboanga City

September 19, 2013

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Muslim rebels have committed war crimes by using human shields in ongoing fighting in the southern city of Zamboanga, Human Rights Watch said today, with both sides responsible for serious abuses.

HRW issued a statement condemning the violence as fighting continued for an 11th day, resulting in the displacement of an additional 34,000 civilians and the deaths of a junior military officer and three rebels. The death toll has now reached at least 115.

The New York-based rights group said that Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fighters used Christian hostages as human shields, whom Philippine government forces attacked, apparently indiscriminately.

A confrontation in Zamboanga in which the rebels hid behind hostages and the army fired on them shows how ugly this fighting became," said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW. "Both sides need to do all they can to prevent further loss of civilian life."

Both state security forces and the MNLF have acted in violation of international law since the conflict started on September 9, HRW said, noting that the use of human shields is a war crime.

"When the smoke finally clears in Zamboanga, the government will need to investigate what happened, including holding accountable members of the military and police who committed abuses," said Adams.

Meanwhile, the Mindanao Human Rights Action Center reported today that the number of displaced individuals rose to about 114,000 from about 80,000 early this week as the remaining MNLF fighters – reportedly fewer than 70 men – stood their ground in at least three villages.

President Benigno Aquino, who visited Zamboanga airport when it re-opened today, said he was ready to talk peace.

"Our policy is to encourage those who are ready to talk and have dialogue. But those who put people’s lives at risk will face the state," the president said in a press conference at the airport.

Aquino said that talks with the MNLF were supposed to take place this week in Indonesia until authorities found "increasing evidence linking [MNLF chairman Nur Misuari] to the ongoing conflict."

The MNLF earlier called for international mediation to end the conflict.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said today that it was ready to step in as a neutral intermediary to help the 114,000 civilians displaced since fighting started.

"We hope a positive settlement will soon be found to the situation in Zamboanga to enable civilians to safely return to their homes and start rebuilding their lives,” Pascal Mauchle, head of the ICRC’s Philippines operation, said in a statement.

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