120,000 flee homes in southern Philippines to avoid violence: UN

GENEVA (AFP) - More than 120,000 people have fled their homes in the impoverished southern Philippines since fighting broke out between government troops and Islamic militants in late January, the UN refugee agency said Friday.

"UNHCR is concerned about the safety of civilians as the conflict spreads into local villages," spokesman Babar Baloch told reporters.

The Philippines military launched an offensive earlier this year against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a rebel group fighting for an independent Muslim homeland in the south.

The offensive, including attacks with artillery and helicopter gunships, has taken place in poor farming areas on Mindanao island, where Muslim rebels have for decades fought for independence.

Baloch said an estimated 13 municipalities in Maguindanao and North Cotabato had been affected by the eight weeks of clashes.

More than 120,000 had been displaced and sought shelter in schools, public buildings and madrasas, he said.

But he acknowledged, "the estimated number of displaced could be higher, since it does not include people hosted by relatives and friends." Baloch also warned that the numbers were "expected to grow as the fighting extends to the local communities ... already hosting many of the displaced." The volatile security situation is meanwhile blocking UNHCR from accessing many of the affected areas, he said.

UNHCR expressed particular concern for the safety of civilians, including women and children, stuck in the conflict area.

While civilians did not seem to be targeted directly, they were getting caught in the crossfire, Baloch told AFP.

"Women and children could potentially be exposed to exploitation and abuse," he warned, pointing out that many found themselves without income or community protection, and with very limited access to shelter, food, medicine and water.

"UNHCR appeals to all parties of the conflict to ensure the safety of civilians while the law and order operation is underway," he said.