ZAMBOANGA CITY/MARAWI CITY: Security forces battling Islamic State-linked fighters rescued 182 civilians trapped in the war-torn city of Marawi in Mindanao on Saturday, but one villager was shot dead by a sniper while running to his freedom, officials said.
The total number of civilians rescued has reached 1,236, but 20 people, mostly Christians, have been killed by the Maute terrorist group since fighting began on May 23 after militants occupied the city in an effort to establish a “wilaya” or province of the Islamic State in the restive region.
One of those rescued told soldiers: “We cannot get out, we are afraid of the terrorists who might see and kill us. They killed civilians, even their fellow Maranao who cannot recite the prayer or even the Shahada, with even one wrong word. Do they expect someone to recite the prayer while they poked guns at you? That terrorist sniper has no heart, we just want to live. He killed a helpless civilian.”
Zia Alonto Adiong, spokesman of the Provincial Crisis Management Committee, said 33 of the rescued survivors included teachers and staff of Dansalan College, where a church and school buildings were torched by the Maute men last May 23. The group also included a year-old baby and seven other children.
Dansalan is run by the Jesuit order of the Catholic Church, and all the teachers were Christians.
The survivors were brought to the Provincial Crisis Management Committee Operations Center in Marawi for medical treatment.
The rescue operation was launched on Friday evening and many of the rescued civilians were residents of Bangolo, the old center of the Marawi City where Maute snipers were perched. Rescuers were tasked to pick up the civilians on Saturday morning at designated safe zones.
Army Captain Jo-ann Petinglay, spokeswoman for the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom), said troops braved the dangerous streets of the Islamic city to rescue the civilians, who were handed over to local authorities.
“Rescued civilians said they had to endure hunger, thirst and sleepless nights as they feared for their lives,” Petinglay said.
The plight of trapped civilians in the battle zone amid air strikes continued to raise concern among different sectors.
Abdullah Mamao, presidential adviser on overseas Filipino workers and Muslim concerns, urged the Maranao people that compose the wider Lanao region to support the government offensive.
“The conflict already happened, we don’t know yet what will be our future in Marawi, Lanao del Sur. It could be the start of our dream of peace and order in our beloved homeland,” he said.
Hundreds of gunmen rampaged through the city of 200,000, the Islamic capital of the mainly Catholic Philippines, on May 23 after government forces attempted to arrest their leader, Isnilon Hapilon.
Up to 50 gunmen continued to control downtown Marawi nearly two weeks later with at least 15 hostages including a Catholic priest, with some being used as human shields, the military said.
As many as 2,000 people remained trapped in desperate conditions in these areas, the government said, likely without food and water and with some injured or ailing as security forces mount a relentless assault.
Run for freedom
A group of 38 civilians said they ran from their hiding place in a part of Marawi city controlled by Maute gunmen as soldiers seized a key bridge in the area to give the civilians safe passage.
“We lay on the floor in the dark each night whenever we heard gunshots or explosions. We barricaded the doors with furniture and a refrigerator,” high school teacher Jerona Sedrome, 27, told Agence France-Presse.
“The ISIS tried to force their way into the house and got in at the second attempt, so we hid in a tunnel beneath the house,” she added, using the acronym for an alternative name for IS.
The Dansalan College teachers recounted between tears and gulps of coffee and bottled water how they survived on steamed rice and rainwater.
“If it didn’t rain we had no water and we didn’t eat,” said Sedrome’s younger sister and fellow teacher, Jane Rose Sedrome, 25.
The elder sister said they secretly communicated with government rescuers by mobile phone text messages through their ordeal, and made their break for freedom when informed the gunmen had been driven away from the bridge.
But they had to go through the sniper alley of Bangolo, the city’s old quarter which is one of the targets of day and night air strikes.
“We passed through three corpses being eaten by maggots. They smelled really bad,” fellow teacher Regene Apao, 23, told AFP.
“We knew they were ISIS because they wore black clothing and black head masks.”
Arnold Balo, 28, an ice cream factory worker, said he cradled a boy in one hand and carried a half-meter long machete in the other, their only protection from the gunmen.
At one point during their sprint for freedom, a gunman perched near the top of a building aimed a sniper rifle at him and ordered him to put his weapon on the ground, Balo said.
“I will do as you order sir. Please don’t kill us,” he said he told the gunman. Balo said he put the machete, and the militant allowed the group to pass.
Fighting enters 12th day
Petinglay said troops continued battling militants and were searching house-to-house for jihadists and civilians still trapped as fighting entered the 12th day.
Brig. Gen. Rolando Joselito Bautista, commander of military forces fighting the militants, urged citizens to help authorities fight terrorism. “We call on our people to stand and unite against terrorism. The fight against terrorism is not the sole duty of the security sector but the responsibility of everyone,” he said.
Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez, Westmincom chief, assured the public that military would “exert every effort” as troops clear Marawi “street by street, building by building, room by room and inch by inch,” of terrorists.
“We hope for the early resolution of this conflict the soonest time possible so that our people in Marawi can go back to their homes and live a normal life again,” he said.
Troops have killed at least 120 militants, but recovered only 42 bodies, and 98 assorted weapons—from automatic rifles to machine guns—left behind by the Maute fighters and members of the Abu Sayyaf group.
Thirty-eight soldiers were also killed in the violence, with dozens more injured in fierce urban and close-quarter clashes.
In Maguindanao province, the military seized a small cache of weapons owned by a supporter of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, an ally of the Maute group. Troops raided the house of Tunga Pindilang in the village of Meta in Datu Unsay town and recovered the weapons. Pindilang was not in the house at the time of the raid.
MOH SAADUDDIN WITH DEMPSEY REYES AND AFP