KOTA KINABALU: Nearly 3,000 families together with their children have fled their villages after five days of skirmishes between soldiers and Moro rebels on Jolo island in southern Philippines.
The sporadic battles engulfing five municipalities began on Monday after civilians living in Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) areas were allegedly shot at by marines hunting for Abu Sayyaf gunmen.
Many of the families from the farming and fishing villages started to flee Patikul, Panamao, Maimbung and Parang municipalities on Wednesday as fighting intensified with reports of 14 soldiers and nearly 100 rebels killed.
“At least 1,000 families have fled to Jolo town and we believe some could be heading for Tawi Tawi,” Sulu provincial governor Benjamin Loong told The Star yesterday.
Asked if the people were heading for Sabah, as Jolo and Tawi Tawi islands were less than a three-hour fast craft ride away, he said his office was hoping there would be no major exodus from southern Philippines.
“Our position is that we are urging for a ceasefire between the (Philippines) armed forces and the MNLF,” said Loong.
According to Philippine Information Agency officer Edmund Gumbahali, who is based in Jolo, the unofficial estimate of displaced families as of yesterday was 2,800 and the number could increase to more than 3,000 if the fighting continued.
“We are expecting more evacuations,” said Gumbahali.
Philippines government officials in Zamboanga said the rebel gunmen were once followers of former Moro leader Nur Misuari, who is now facing treason charges in Manila for an alleged coup attempt in Jolo three years ago.
Security forces in Sabah are closely monitoring the ongoing skirmishes in Jolo.
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