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ZAMBOANGA CITY – While fighting between security and Abu Sayyaf in Sulu province subsided on Friday, the number of villagers who evacuated their homes continue to rise as more families fled for their safety, officials said.

Officials said at least 5,000 people – mostly from Patikul town – have fled their villages and sought safe refuge in other areas far away from the violence. Many of those affected by the fighting came from the villages of Latih, Bungkahung, Tugas and Maligay.

Sulu Governor Totoh Tan, who heads the crisis management committee, ordered social workers to look at the welfare of the civilians and ensure they get food aid from the provincial government. Tan already dispatched truckloads of rice and other provisions, and medicines to the refugees.

Tan, also chairman of the provincial disaster risk reduction and management office, also called on town mayors to look into the plight of the civilians, especially women, children and elderly people and coordinate with the Department of Social Welfare and Development 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 sent to Sulu, one of 5 provinces under the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, to help local troops and policemen destroy the Abu Sayyaf, blamed by authorities for the spate of terrorism and ransom kidnappings.

Dozens of soldiers and militants had been killed and wounded in fierce clashes the past weeks in Sulu where the Abu Sayyaf pledged allegiance with the Islamic State. The Abu Sayyaf is also believed coddling Indonesian and Malaysian jihadists in the province.

President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the military to destroy the Abu Sayyaf and at the same time convinced Nur Misuari, chieftain of the former rebel group Moro National Liberation Front to support the campaign and not provide refuge to the militant group, whose members were mostly ex-fighters of the MNLF which signed a peace deal with Manila in September 1996.

Misuari is also wanted by authorities on rebellion charges following deadly attacks by his followers in Zamboanga City in 2013. Duterte ordered security forces not to arrest Misuari and allow him to move freely in Sulu where he is hiding.

Duterte also invited Misuari for a dialogue in an effort to boost the peace process in the restive region where Muslims are demanding for the establishment of their own homeland or a wider autonomy over Mindanao which is rich in natural resources. (Mindanao Examiner)

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