The Islamic State (IS) has owned up to attacks in Marawi City, Lanao del Norte, that prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to place the entire Mindanao island under martial law late Tuesday and forced thousands to flee the city on Wednesday for fear of being caught in the crossfire between government troops and the terrorist Maute Group.
“Five jasus or spies of the Philippine Army were executed in Marawi City in southern part of the Philippines,” Amaq news agency, an IS propaganda arm, reported in its bulletin.
President Duterte, who was in Russia at the time of the attacks, cut short his official visit and imposed a 60-day military rule in Mindanao, including the provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi (Basulta).
Many civilians were believed killed during the attacks.
Authorities said a policeman was killed and some soldiers were injured in their pursuit operations against the bandits from the Maute Group.
A firefight that started late afternoon on Tuesday ground to a halt before dawn on Wednesday, civilians said, adding they were expecting more clashes later in the day.
Thousands of people started fleeing the city around 6 a.m. on Wednesday after the attackers told the civilians
to abandon their houses and property within six hours without them being harmed in the streets.
The evacuees took refuge in nearby towns of Lanao del Sur province and most of them went to Iligan City and other areas outside the province.
Some of them were stranded in heavy traffic along the Marawi-Iligan highway.
Most of the people of Lanao del Norte decided to remain in Marawi City (population: 200,000) “to protect their homeland from destruction” urging local leaders, peace advocates and the warring parties to spare Marawi City.
“We are appealing to the warring parties to spare the peace-loving people of Marawi City from skirmishes,” Saad Amate, president of the United Imam of the Philippines, told The Manila Times in a phone interview.
Amate said he has relayed his message to the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process and other government agencies to look into the situation that will protect the city from destruction and the civilians from harm.
More than 300 bandits were still occupying several structures and streets around the city, at this writing, waving the IS flag and looking ready to engage the government forces, sources said.
The Maute Group is headed by members of the Khilafah Islamiyah Movement and its intelligence group Ghuraba that had previously declared an Islamic caliphate in the country in 2014.
The group is believed behind the other threat groups in the country to pledge allegiance to the IS leadership to include the Abu Sayyaf Group headed by Isnilon Hapilon, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, the Ansarul Khilafah in the Philippines and the Rajah Solaiman Movement.
“Their main objective in the city is to take over the 103rd Infantry Brigade [of the Armed Forces of the Philippines],” the sources said.
The military augmented its forces and started to arrive before dawn on Wednesday in the city, they added.
The Inter-Agency Task Force in Lanao del Sur has formed a crisis committee for “unexpected situations.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is “monitoring the security situation” in the area, Lany de la Cruz of the task force told The Manila Times.
The ICRC raised concerns about the impact of the conflict, urging the warring parties to respect international humanitarian law and spare civilians from harm.
“We are extremely concerned about the impact of the ongoing hostilities in Marawi City on the civilians. We urge all parties to the conflict to spare civilians and respect civilian property, such as hospitals and schools, in fulfillment of their obligations to respect international humanitarian law,” the international organization said in a statement.
The sources said the bandits have torched structures in the city on Tuesday evening to include the Marawi City Jail and the Dansalan College.
Many were held hostage in the college and some of them were believed executed by the attackers.
The terrorists robbed a gun store in the city of new weapons and ammunition.
They also grabbed several private vehicles and police patrol cars, ambulances and fire trucks and used them to block roads.
The Mindanao State University in the city has activated 300 university security guards, 45 policemen and 45 military to man the state-owned university, Dr. Habib Macaayong, president of the university, told reporters.