Islamist terrorists occupying a southern Philippine city have forced nearly 400,000 people in the wider area to flee their homes, officials said as they warned of disease outbreaks and psychological trauma among refugees.
The city of Marawi, considered the Muslim capital of the largely Catholic Philippines, has been reduced to a ghost town after self-styled followers of the Islamic State movement launched an assault on the city on May 23.
For more than a month, the government has deployed jet fighters, attack helicopters and armored vehicles to crush the militants who are members of the so-called Maute group.
The fighting has left over 400 people dead, while the Maute fighters still control parts of the city, using snipers and improvised explosive devices to slow the military’s advance.
Out of 389,300 who have fled, over 70,380 people have been housed in 79 government-run evacuation centers, while the rest have sheltered with their relatives, according to social welfare department figures.
Liza Mazo that relief officials have struggled to deal with outbreaks of illness at the evacuation centers as government forces continue to launch air strikes and artillery barrages against the militants.
“There are alarming cases of skin diseases and gastroenteritis. We want to control the outbreak, not just in the evacuation center but even the home-based (refugees),” she said.
“There are also cases of psychological trauma from the fighting.”
Some 26 people who have fled Marawi have since died in hospitals from various ailments, according to the health department’s local spokesman Jun Galban, but he declined to say whether their deaths were related to the evacuation.
President Rodrigo Duterte, who declared martial law over the southern Philippines to deal with the crisis, vowed on Saturday that government forces would crush the extremists.
“We will not go out there (Marawi) until the last terrorist is executed,” he said in a speech to government workers.
But he conceded, “we are having a hard time.”
“We never realized the magnitude of their preparation for their explosives. We got there, they were positioned (with) their snipers. We practically had to climb upward,” he said.