ZAMBOANGA CITY: While fighting between the military and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in Sulu province subsided early on Friday, the number of villagers who had abandoned their houses continued to rise as more families fled for their safety.
Officials said at least 5,000 people – mostly from Patikul town – have left their villages and sought refuge in other areas far away from the violence. Majority of those affected by the fighting came from the villages of Latih, Bungkahung, Tugas and Maligay.
Sulu Gov. Totoh Tan, who heads the Crisis Management Committee, ordered social workers to look into the welfare of the civilians and ensure that they get food aid from the provincial government.
Tan already dispatched truckloads of rice and other provisions, including medicines, to the refugees.
The governor, also chairman of the Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office, has called on town mayors to look into the plight of the civilians, especially women, children and the elderly, and coordinate with the Social Welfare office and other aid agencies to ensure their welfare and safety.
“The active participation of all local government units is a must. Our task must be properly coordinated to avoid confusion and chaos. Our priority is to provide assistance and relief to our displaced citizens,” he said.
Some 8,000 soldiers were already sent to Sulu to help local troops and policemen destroy the Abu Sayyaf blamed for a spate of terrorism and ransom kidnappings.
Dozens of soldiers and ASG bandits had been killed and wounded in fierce clashes the past weeks in Sulu.
The Abu Sayyaf is also believed to be coddling Indonesian and Malaysian jihadists in the province.
President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the military to destroy the Abu Sayyaf terrorists in wake of the beheadings of some of their Filipino and foreign hostages.
At the same time, he convinced Nur Misuari, head of the former rebel group Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), to support the campaign and not provide refuge to the bandit group, whose members were mostly its ex-fighters.
Misuari is also wanted on rebellion charges in connection with the Zamboanga City siege in 2013.
Duterte has assured Misuari that he will not be arrested if he comes out for peace.
He also invited the MNLF leader to a dialogue in an effort to boost the peace process in the restive southern region where Muslims are demanding the establishment of their own homeland and a wider autonomy over Mindanao.