Evacuees hit 80,000 mark in Jolo

JOLO, Philippines, AFP

The number of civilians displaced by a military offensive against a band of Muslim gunmen holding 17 hostages in the southern Philippines has risen to 88,805, the military said Sunday.

As fighting entered its third week and troops continued their ground and air assault against the Abu Sayyaf in at least five municipalities on the island of Jolo, thousands of villagers packed schools converted into evacuation centers in deplorable conditions, health workers said.

Major General Narciso Abaya, who commands the 4,000-strong force involved in the operation, said relief operations to assist the evacuees were ongoing.

“It’s not yet time to declare a state of calamity in Jolo,” Abaya told reporters here despite earlier complaints by volunteers that food and medicine supplies were dwindling fast.

Red Cross volunteers who visited several camps last week warned of a possible outbreak of disease due to a lack of medical supplies, water and proper sanitation.

They said seven children died of diarrhea last week, with hundreds of other civilians believed to be trapped in the crossfire.

Truckloads of evacuees streamed into the capital town of Jolo on Sunday as the military unleashed a torrent of bombs and artillery fire on an Abu Sayyaf mountain lair, witnesses said.

Looking haggard, they carried sacks stuffed with their belongings, but refused to be interviewed by reporters.

Red Cross officials earlier said they were stepping up efforts to aid the evacuees, and that additional food and medicine would be airlifted from Manila in the coming week.