MANILA - The Philippines on Sunday appealed to thousands of its nationals to flee Libya, warning that the situation there could worsen after only a few hundred heeded calls to return home.
The Department of Foreign Affairs said it was preparing a ship to ferry Filipino workers from Libyan cities to Malta so they can be flown home after fighting closed down the airport in Tripoli.
President Benigno Aquino's spokesman Herminio Coloma told reporters "we are appealing to them to call our embassy in Tripoli... it is better that at this early stage, they get in touch with our embassy" to arrange to be evacuated.
So far, only 831 of the estimated 13,000 Filipinos working in Libya have returned home despite regular fighting between militia groups that has killed more than 200 people and wounded another 1,000 in the past two weeks, the Department of Foreign Affairs said.
The government announced a "mandatory" evacuation of its nationals last month after the beheading of a Filipino construction worker abducted by unknown suspects. That killing was followed by the gang rape of a Filipina nurse in the capital Tripoli on Wednesday.
Such security problems have prompted thousands of people to flee, mostly overland to neighboring Tunisia, and numerous countries have closed their embassies and urged their citizens to leave.
Coloma said that while some Filipinos may be stubborn, "once their lives are at stake, they will be convinced to go".
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, who is in Tunisia, has been meeting with workers who flee across the Libyan border before being flown back to the Philippines.
Del Rosario said the government would take steps to evacuate people by sea as soon as possible and that "a vessel has been identified to secure Filipinos safely from Benghazi and Misrata, to be ferried to Malta for their onward flights to the Philippines", the department said in a statement.
The Philippines previously launched a mass evacuation of its workers in Libya in 2011, when most of the 30,000 Filipinos there left during the violent chaos leading to the toppling of late dictator Moamer Kadhafi.
Filipinos make up large proportion of Libya's medical personnel and health officials there are warning of a possible collapse of the healthcare system if all the Filipinos leave.
About 10 million Filipinos work around the world, earning more money in a wide range of skilled and unskilled sectors than they could in their impoverished homeland.