'Humanitarian crisis' in battle-scarred Philippine city

Aid workers warned Thursday of a worsening humanitarian crisis in a major Philippine city wracked by more than two weeks of deadly street battles between Muslim rebels and soldiers.

The overnight deaths of three troops brought the official death toll from the conflict in Zamboanga to 173, as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) guerrillas remained defiant despite being heavily outnumbered.

"We are increasingly alarmed by the situation and the growing needs of people caught up with violence," the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in the Philippines, Luiza Carvalho, said in a statement.

"We are particularly concerned for the most vulnerable, especially the well-being of women and children."

The military said hundreds of MNLF rebels entered Zamboanga on September 9, taking over several coastal villages, burning thousands of homes and taking dozens of civilians hostage, in a bid to derail peace talks.

More than 109,000 people have since been displaced in Zamboanga, according to the UN, or about 10 percent of the population of the coastal city, which is one of the major trading hubs for the strife-torn southern Philippines.

"The situation in Zamboanga City... is now a humanitarian crisis," the UN statement said.

Growing risk of disease outbreaks

The UN highlighted particular concerns for 70,000 people sheltering in the city's main sports complex, warning there was a serious risk of disease outbreaks and a dire need for food, drinking water and tents.

Red Cross volunteer Roseller Roxas, who has been helping at the sports stadium, said hygiene was becoming a major problem with aid workers unable to cope with the huge crowd.

"We really need more portalets (portable toilets.) It is very unsanitary. Hygiene is really the big problem here," he told AFP.

"There are kids who don't want to line up for the toilets so they just defecate in the open."

There have already been outbreaks of measles, diarrhoea and conjunctivitis in some evacuation centres, the spokeswoman for the city's Crisis Management Committee, Sheila Covarrubias, told AFP.

"We need more medicine. There are calls for donations, not only food but also for medicine," she said.

Meanwhile, the military pressed on with efforts to end the standoff against the remnants of the MNLF force who are hiding out in homes of devastated neighbourhoods.

"The terrain is urban, there is a lot of rubble, a lot of houses to hide in," military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala told AFP.

"It's very difficult for troops to operate in. The enemy can hide in areas where they can shoot from a high position."

Twenty-three security forces and 12 civilians have died in the conflict, according to Zagala.

He said 138 MNLF troops had also been killed, while another 218 had been captured or surrendered.

After giving a daily commentary on how many MNLF rebels were still hiding out -- figures that have since appeared to be underestimates -- Zagala declined on Thursday to say how many the military were still pursuing.

Last week Zagala said thousands of soldiers were battling about 30 to 40 remaining guerrillas.

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 a final peace pact, which Misuari believes would sideline the MNLF.

Another small rebel group opposed to the peace talks, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, also staged deadly attacks last week against security forces and civilians in a small town about 270 kilometres (170 miles) from Zamboanga.

Four soldiers and two civilians died in those battles, according to the military.