According to officials, about 3000 families have been displaced since fighting broke out two weeks ago between the military and supporters of jailed Muslim leader Nur Misuari.
Nearly 25 soldiers and about 50 Muslim rebels have been killed and dozens more wounded on either side, according to the military. But the government has gone to great pains to insist there have been no civilian casualties.
The fighting, however, has displaced thousands of civilians from four towns on the island as the military used artillery and aircraft to flush out the gunmen from fortified camps at the mountainous east coast village of Bitan-ag.
"Our problem is that we cannot get into some of these areas for security reasons," said a Philippine National Red Cross official who asked not to be named.
The military allowed a Red Cross team to reach one area by land on Sunday while another team reached another area by boat, the official said, but declined to give details for security reasons. "Our main concern is with the civilians, the children and the old in particular," the Red Cross official said, adding that the aid group has been buying enough food for five days for about 3000 families displaced by the conflict. The estimate for the displaced families "could translate into 15-17,000 people," he said.
"Our problem is that we cannot get into some of these areas"
Red Cross official
Civilians flee fighting
"Civilians have been fleeing the fighting since it started. (There are) reports of civilian causalities but we have not seen any, so we cannot confirm the reports," the official added. "These are spread over a wide area."
The military has said it needs "one or two more weeks" to crush the uprising said Ben Loong, governor of Sulu province that includes Jolo.
About 13,000 civilians have been
fleeing the heavy fighting
Brigadier-General Agustin Dema-ala, who is leading the military operation involving at least 3000 soldiers, gave a new estimate of up to 300 gunmen holed up in Bitan-ag, armed with mortars, machine-guns and rifles.
"Our troops are closing in. It's just a matter of time" before the military prevails, he said.
A military troop transport off loaded several hundred more soldiers at Jolo airport on Monday, but Dema-ala said they were replacements for troops who have been in the fight since last week.
Limiting rebellionPresident Gloria Arroyo's main concern is to prevent the fighting spreading to other areas of the rebellion-torn southern region of Mindanao. Her government is observing an 18-month-old truce with the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest rebel group in the south. "There is no armed group in the Philippines that can really stand the might of the armed forces," Arroyo's chief aide Eduardo Ermita told reporters in Manila on Monday, adding that there was no evidence the gunmen were getting foreign support.
"So we are looking at a quick finish to this problem."
The rebels are believed to comprise at least one faction of the rival Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), Misuari's separatist guerrilla group that signed a peace treaty with the government in 1996.
While about 5000 former rebels were integrated into the security forces after the peace pact, thousands more former MNLF rebels failed to disarm as they retired to their communities in Jolo and elsewhere in the Mindanao region.
Ermita said the government had tightened custodial arrangements for Misuari. He is being held in a police camp outside Manila while on trial for a similar rising by his followers that left more than 100 people dead in Jolo and nearby Zamboanga city in November 2001.
The MNLF leadership, which does not support the rebellion, has tipped off the government "that Misuari has contact" with his rebellious supporters, possibly by mobile phone smuggled into his cell, Ermita said.
Ermita speculated that Misuari's group stirred up the trouble to speed up the resolution of the rebellion case against him.
Shooting at airport
In a separate incident, gunmen shot dead two policemen and threw a grenade that wounded six others at a provincial airport on the eastern Philippines island of Catanduanes, officials said.
Four unidentified attackers shot and killed two police officers at a checkpoint at the Virac airport and then tossed a grenade at other policemen who came to their aid, regional police spokesman Senior Superintendent Jaime Milla said. Six officers, including the Catanduanes provincial police director Senior Superintendent Gorgonio Rosero, were wounded, Milla told reporters here.
Two police officers were shot
dead at a local airport
It was not immediately known if the attack had disrupted flights or whether any airport facilities were damaged.
Communist New People's Army guerrillas are known to operate in Catanduanes, but it was unclear whether they were involved in the airport attack.