MANILA, Philippines — Nearly 24,000 people have fled their homes in the southern Philippines to escape fighting between the armed forces and Islamic militants, relief officials said Thursday.
With President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo due to fly to the troubled southern region later in the day to meet with commanders, the civil defense office said that 40 hamlets had been evacuated on mainly Muslim Jolo and Basilan islands.
It said 14 schools had also been shut since July 10, when militants killed 14 marines — and beheaded 10 of them — in an ambush.
Thousands of troops have been deployed to the islands, sparking further clashes that have led to some of the heaviest military casualties in recent years, with dozens of soldiers and militants killed.
“The situation in Basilan remains critical due to ongoing [military] operations against Abu Sayyaf Group targets,” the government relief agency said.
Relief officials are expecting “massive evacuation” on top of nearly 12,000 people who have sought refuge at government-run centers, it said. A similar number have left their homes in Jolo.
Families of displaced persons at those camps are getting basic rations of rice, sugar, coffee, noodles and sardines, it said.
Other organizations including the UN World Food Program, are taking part in the relief work.
The Abu Sayyaf has carried out the worst terror attacks in Philippine history, including mass kidnappings and bombings.
Both the United States and Philippine governments have linked the Abu Sayyaf movement to the Al-Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden.
The United States, which has placed the Abu Sayyaf on its list of foreign terrorist organizations, has been providing special forces personnel in Jolo to provide intelligence and training to local forces.