MARAWI CITY: Two thousand fearful civilians were trapped on Sunday in Marawi City where troops are battling Maute Group militants. Authorities said the death toll from almost a week of fighting neared 100.The military intensified a bombing campaign on parts of Marawi on Mindanao island, as it accused the gunmen of atrocities including murdering women and a child.
The initial fighting prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law in Mindanao to quell what he said was a fast-growing threat from terrorists linked to the Islamic State (IS) group.
Most of the city’s 200,000 residents have fled because of the fighting, but 2,000 remain trapped in areas controlled by the militants, according to Zia Alonto Adiong, spokesman for the provincial crisis management committee.
“They have been sending us text messages, calling our hotline, requesting us to send rescue teams but we cannot simply go to areas which are inaccessible to us,” Adiong said.
“They want to leave. They are afraid for their safety. Some are running out of food to eat. They fear they will be hit by bullets, by airstrikes,” he said.
The military announced on Saturday, the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, that it would step up the bombing.
“In as much as we would like to avoid collateral damage, these rebels are forcing the hand of government by hiding and holding out inside private homes, government buildings and other facilities,” military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla.
“Their refusal to surrender is holding the city captive. Hence, it is now increasingly becoming necessary to use more surgical airstrikes to clear the city and to bring this rebellion to a quicker end.”
The militants have killed at least 19 civilians, including three women and a child who were found dead near a university, regional military spokesman Lt. Col. Jo-ar Herrera said.
“These are civilians, women. These terrorists are anti-people,” Herrera said.
An Agence France Presse photographer saw eight bodies dumped off a bridge on the outskirts of Marawi on Sunday, with local residents identifying them as employees of a rice mill and a medical college.
It was unclear whether those eight were included in the military’s count of civilian deaths.
Fifteen soldiers, two policemen and 61 militants have died in the fighting, according to authorities. This brings the combined official death toll to at least 97.
The military said it has rescued 124 trapped civilians since the start of its operations.
The Office of Civil Defense (OCD) has put up a crisis command center in Iligan City where relief goods and medical services will be coursed through for families affected by the conflict in Marawi City and other parts of Mindanao.
“Civil protection is paramount in situations like this. In every hazard may it be natural or human-induced, we are committed to serving our nation by protecting the communities,” National Disaster Risk Reduction & Management Council Executive Director and Civil Defense Administrator Ricardo Jalad, said.
The violence began when dozens of gunmen went on a rampage throughout Marawi in response to an attempt by security forces to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, a veteran Filipino militant regarded as the local leader of IS.
The United States regards Hapilon as one of the world’s most dangerous terrorists and has offered a bounty of $5 million for his capture.
The gunmen on Tuesday planted black IS flags, took a priest and up to 14 other people hostage from a church, and set fire to buildings. Authorities said Saturday the fate of those hostages remained unknown.
Duterte and military chiefs have said most of the militants belong to the local Maute group, which has declared allegiance to IS and which the government estimates has about 260 armed followers.
Duterte has said local criminals are also backing the Maute in Marawi. He said he was prepared to enforce martial law for as long as was necessary to end the terrorist threat, and even ignore constitutionally mandated safeguards such as the Supreme Court and congressional oversight.
“Until the police and the armed forces say the Philippines is safe, this martial law will continue. I will not listen to others. The Supreme Court, congress, they are not here,” Duterte told soldiers on Saturday.
“Are they the ones dying and losing blood, bleeding, hemorrhaging because there is no help, no reinforcement? It’s not them.”
The 1987 constitution imposes limits on martial law to prevent a repeat of the abuses carried out under the regime of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was deposed by a famous “People Power” revolution the previous year.
The constitution requires congress to approve a president’s declaration of martial law, and limits military rule for 60 days. If a president wants to extend it, he or she must again get congressional endorsement.
The Supreme Court can also rule on martial law’s legality.
“The Supreme Court will say they will examine the factual (basis). Why I don’t know. They are not soldiers. They do not know what is happening on the ground,” Duterte said Saturday on Jolo, a southern island that is under martial law.
Duterte has overwhelming support in congress. However Supreme Court chief justice, Maria Lourdes Serreno, on Friday expressed concerns about martial law.
WITH A REPORT FROM JING VILLAMENTE