MARAWI– Philippine forces control most of a southern city where militants linked to the Islamic State 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 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 the Islamic State group.
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 was taking time because the gunmen are taking advantage of the urban environment, moving quickly from building to building to evade capture.
“I cannot give operational details, but I am sure they are also human, they will also get tired,” he said.
According to government figures Monday, the death toll was 105 people – 61 militants, 20 government forces and 24 civilians.
The bodies of several civilians were found on the streets Sunday as soldiers cleared neighbourhoods. In one area, the bodies of eight men who appeared to have been executed by militants were found in a ravine, police said. The bodies of four other men, three women and a child were found near a road close to Mindanao State University in Marawi.
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. Marawi is a mostly Muslim city.
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 the Islamic State group 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 the Islamic State group. Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters that Hapilon has received funds from IS.
Washington has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to Hapilon’s capture.