89 militants killed in Marawi as Philippine military fights to capture leaders

PHOTO: Reuters

MARAWI, Philippines - Philippine troops have killed 89 Islamist militants during more than a week of urban battles but a final showdown is expected to be fierce as the gunmen protect their leaders and hold hostages, authorities said on Wednesday (May 31).

Attack helicopters fired rockets on Wednesday morning into parts of Marawi, a Muslim city in the south of the mainly Catholic Philippines, that were still controlled by the militants fighting under the black flag of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group.

President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law across the entire southern region of Mindanao in response to the crisis, which he described as the start of a major campaign by ISIS to establish a foothold in the Philippines.

Eighty-nine militants had been killed in the fighting and the amount of territory in the city that the remaining gunmen controlled had been cut to just 10 per cent, military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla said on Wednesday.

However Padilla warned of more intense battles ahead, with the military believing three of the militants' main leaders were likely still in the city.

"That 10 per cent is most likely the area that is heavily guarded and defended by any armed men if they are protecting any individual of high value," Padilla said.

Fear, confusion in Marawi city

  • Four hungry chickens clawed at rubbish in a deserted street that smelt of corpses as military helicopters skimmed the rooftops firing rockets while the Philippines' most beautiful Muslim city burned. 
  • Marawi, a lakeshore city of minarets that is the centre of culture for the mainly Catholic Philippines' Muslim minority, is nearly empty after gunmen wielding black flags of the Islamic State (IS) group went on a rampage last week. 
  • Despite a relentless military campaign, an unknown number of gunmen remain held up in pockets of the city and holding hostages, while up to 2,000 residents are trapped. 
  • "These guys know how to fight. It looks like they have had some training," Marawi city police chief Parson Asadil told AFP on Monday in grudging acknowledgement as he manned a checkpoint. 
  • At least one of his men had been killed and five are missing, he said. 
  • The official death toll is 19 civilians, 17 soldiers, three police and 65 militants.  It is almost certain to rise. 
  • A police commando told reporters in Marawi he suspected the still off-limits public market was full of dead bodies. 
  • Those trapped are in danger of being hit by rockets or getting caught in the crossfire of the battles, while a lack of electricity, water, food and medical care could be just as deadly, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. 
  • "Sick people have already died because they couldn't get out. There are elderly in there." 
  • The military campaign involves dangerous house-to-house combat with the gunmen using sniper fire to deadly effect from key structures and buildings. 
  • At multiple military and police checkpoints outside of the city there were long lines while security forces cross-checked residents' faces against the mug shots of known terror suspects printed on large posters. 
  • Helicopters also fly regularly over the areas being held by the militants and fire rockets, even with civilians known to be in nearby buildings. 
  • At a key city crossing, where local police chief Asadil's unit took shelter from the sun on the side of buildings while manning a checkpoint on Monday, the streets were empty except for the four scrawny chickens. 
  • Shops nearby were boarded up, with glass facades riddled with bullet holes. A truck with a smashed windshield and blown-out tyres blocked the road a block away. 
  • Before the fighting, Marawi had a population of 200,000 people, more than 90 per cent of whom were Muslim. 
  • Since the fighting began neighbouring towns and cities have been swamped with fleeing Marawi residents, some having walked two days from mountain villages to skirt the fighting. 
  • At multiple military and police checkpoints outside of the city there were long lines while security forces cross-checked residents' faces against the mug shots of known terror suspects printed on large posters. 
  • "This would not have happened to us if the gunmen had not come to our village." 
  • Another Muslim resident expressed bewilderment at the reported goals of the gunmen: imposing a brutal form of rule such as that seen by IS in Iraq and Syria, with anyone not sharing their ideology regarded as the enemy.
  • "They are supposed to be part of our tribe, they are supposed to be our kin, but even we don't understand what their cause is," the man said. 

The militants are also holding an unknown number of civilians hostage, according to Padilla and other authorities.

They initially took a priest and up to 14 other people hostage at the start of the crisis.

A video of the priest appeared on social media on Tuesday (May 30), in which he repeated the militants' demands to withdraw and said his captors were holding 240 people hostage.

Padilla said the number of people cited in the video as being held hostage could not be verified.

He insisted the release of the footage showed the militants were becoming increasingly desperate and said security forces would not back down.

"They are trapped, they are contained, they are in areas that they will never come up alive unless they surrender," Padilla said.

Another major complicating factor was the safety of about 2,000 residents who the local government said remained trapped in the militant-controlled areas, with troops, police and aid workers trying to rescue them.

"It was a terrible situation. We did not have anything to eat," Jenita Abanilla, 47, a laundrywoman, told reporters at an evacuation centre in Marawi on Wednesday shortly after heavily armed police brought her to safety.

Abanilla said she, her eight-year-old son, her husband plus eight other neighbours and relatives had often hid kneeling, with their faces on the floor of her house.

"We covered the mouths of our children. We were afraid the gunmen would come in and kill us," she said, adding they were also scared of being hit by military bombs.

Padilla said on Wednesday the militants had murdered 19 civilians but insisted that the military's "precision airstrikes" had not killed any of the trapped residents.

Twenty-one security forces had also died, Padilla said, bringing the combined death toll to 129.

The clashes erupted when security forces raided a house to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, a veteran Filipino militant regarded as ISIS' leader in the Philippines and who is on the US government's list of most-wanted terrorists.

Authorities said they were taken by surprise when dozens of gunmen emerged to protect Hapilon and then went on a rampage through Marawi, the Philippines' main Islamic city with a population of 200,000.

Hapilon was being protected by members of the local Maute group, a small band of militants which has declared allegiance to ISIS, according to the government.

Malaysian, Singaporean, Indonesian and other fighters had been involved in the unrest, according to the military.

Hapilon and the two Maute leaders - brothers after whose surname the group is named - were still believed to be in Marawi, local military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jo-ar Herrera told reporters.

A Muslim separatist rebellion in the southern Philippines has killed more than 120,000 people since the 1970s.

The main Muslim rebel groups have signed accords with the government aimed at forging lasting peace, giving up their separatist ambitions in return for autonomy.

The Maute and other hardline groups have rejected the peace process.

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