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ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AFP) – The Philippines urged its citizens on Saturday to send more aid for 100,000 people who had fled heavy fighting between troops and Muslim rebels in the country's south, calling their plight a "humanitarian crisis".
The conflict has claimed more than 100 lives since hundreds of rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) entered the key trading centre of Zamboanga in a bid to derail peace talks with a rival group.
While many of the insurgents have surrendered and most of the dozens of hostages they took have been freed, attention has turned to conditions faced by 118,000 refugees displaced by the fighting.
"This has become a humanitarian crisis," Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman told AFP.
She said those displaced were staying in 57 evacuation centres, including the city's main sports complex where over 70,000 people jostled for space and erected tents and shelters fashioned from scavenged materials.
"We are trying to organise them by providing them better materials," she said, but appealed to the public to send in more aid in the form of clothes, food, education materials and toys for the many children among the displaced.
"The tents are very fragile. If it starts raining hard, there will be a massive problem for children, women, the elderly, the babies and their lactating mothers," she said.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has said in a report there was insufficient supply of tents, cooking utensils and health and sanitation facilities.
It added that children were traumatised, while immunisations for common diseases were being undertaken to prevent an outbreak.
MNLF rebels entered Zamboanga, a major trading centre with one million residents, on September 9, taking over several coastal villages, burning thousands of homes and taking dozens of civilians hostage.
President Benigno Aquino flew to the area last week to take direct command of the operations, with about 4,500 soldiers deployed to the city to push back the rebels.
As of Saturday, the military said 102 MNLF rebels and 13 policemen and soldiers had been killed, while over 100 gunmen were captured or surrendered.
However, at least 12 civilians had been killed, including a 71-year-old woman whose home was hit by rebel mortar fire on Saturday morning.
Police were also investigating whether a bombing far from the frontlines that killed three people late Friday was linked to the siege.
Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala told AFP Saturday that only about 30 to 40 remaining gunmen holding about 21 hostages were engaged in sporadic fighting with troops.
"We're doing house to house search operations today and their area of operation has become smaller," he said.
Muslim rebels have been fighting since the 1970s for an independent or autonomous homeland in the south of the mainly Catholic Philippines. An estimated 150,000 people have died in the conflict.
The MNLF signed a peace treaty in 1996 that granted limited self-rule to the south's Muslim minority.
However MNLF founder Nur Misuari deployed some of his men to Zamboanga to show opposition to a planned peace deal between the government and the remaining major Muslim rebel group, the 12,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The MILF is close to signing the peace pact, which Misuari believes would sideline the MNLF.