World

Philippine forces make gains in city under siege

Philippine forces control most of a southern city where militants linked to ISIS launched a bloody siege nearly a week ago, authorities say.

Only small areas of Marawi are under militants' control after 6 days of fighting, country's military says

A masked member of Philippine Marines is pictured as his team advance their positions in Marawi. About 100 people have died in the violence, including some civilians. (Erik De Castro/Reuters)

Philippine forces control most of a southern city where militants linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group launched a bloody siege nearly a week ago, authorities said Monday, as the army launched airstrikes and went house-to-house to crush areas of resistance.

More than 100 people, including 24 civilians, have been killed in six days of fighting, the government said. Many more were believed to be trapped inside the city.

"I have to rescue my grandfather even at the risk of my life," Khana-Anuar Marabur Jr. said Monday after police stopped him for speeding through a checkpoint. He said his grandfather had been sending him text messages asking to be saved.

"Get me out of here alive, not dead," one message said. "This war is taking too long."

The crisis in Marawi, which is home to some 200,000 people, has raised fears that extremism in the southern Philippines is increasing as smaller militant groups unify and align themselves with ISIS.

Only small areas of Marawi remain under militants' control after six days of fighting, said Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla, the military spokesman. In recent days, gunmen have managed to fend off attack helicopters, armoured vehicles and scores of soldiers.

"We can control who comes in and who comes out, who moves around and who doesn't, and we are trying to isolate these pockets of resistance that have remained," Padilla said.

Philippine National Police Chief Ronald de la Rosa said the operation takes time because Marawi is urban, allowing gunmen to move quickly from building to building to evade capture.

'They will get tired'

"I cannot give operational details, but I am sure they are also human, they will get tired," he said.

The crisis in Marawi, home to some 200,000 people, has raised fears that extremism is growing in the southern Philippines as smaller militant groups unify and align themselves with ISIS.

On Sunday, Philippine forces said they found corpses in the streets, including at least eight civilians who appeared to have been executed by militants.

The violence prompted President Rodrigo Duterte last week to declare 60 days of martial law in the southern Philippines, where a Muslim separatist rebellion has raged for decades.

Philippine Marines advance their positions as more soldiers reinforce to fight the Maute group in Marawi City in southern Philippines on Monday. (Erik De Castro/Reuters)

Less resistance

Padilla said Sunday that combat operations were still going on, but that the militants were weakening.

"We believe they're now low on ammunition and food," he said, speaking by phone from Manila, the capital. "Compared to the initial days, there has been increasingly less resistance from the militants within Marawi."

Padilla said the bodies of four men, three women and a child were found near a road close to Mindanao State University in Marawi.

Eight other men were found gunned down and thrown into a shallow ravine early Sunday in Marawi's Emi village, said police officer Jamail Mangadang. A paper sign attached to one of the men indicated that the victims had "betrayed their faith," he said, identifying the men as civilians.

Marawi is a mostly Muslim city.

A Philippine attack helicopter fires a rocket at the Maute group in Marawi in the southern Philippines. The Maute has a heavy presence in Marawi and has been instrumental in fighting off government forces in the current battles. (Erik De Castro/Reuters)

105 dead

According to government figures Monday, the death toll was 105 people — 61 militants, 20 government forces and 24 civilians.

The violence erupted last Tuesday night when the government launched a raid to capture Isnilon Hapilon, who is on Washington's list of most-wanted terrorists. But the operation went awry and militants rampaged through the city, torching buildings and battling government forces in the streets.

A priest and several worshippers were taken hostage. There was no word on their condition.

Hapilon, an Islamic preacher, was once a commander of the Abu Sayyaf militant group who pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2014. He now heads an alliance of at least 10 smaller militant groups, including the Maute, which has a heavy presence in Marawi and has been instrumental in fighting off government forces in the current battles.

All of the groups are inspired by ISIS. Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters that Hapilon has received funds from the group.

Washington has offered a $5-million reward for information leading to Hapilon's capture.

Evacuees wait for a distribution of relief goods in a evacuation centre at Baloi, Lanao Del Norte, Philippines. (Romeo Ranoco/Reuters)

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