Philippines troops backed by tanks and helicopters battled on Friday to retake a southern city of 200,000 people overrun by militants linked to the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) earlier this week.
At least 31 militants from a group called Maute and 11 soldiers have been killed in heavy fighting that has caused thousands of civilians to flee Marawi, the army said.
It is unknown how many civilians have been killed, but a priest and his worshippers have been taken hostage amid reports the militants are using civilians as human shields and executing people.
The fighting began when police and soldiers on Tuesday raided an apartment in Marawi where Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of the notorious Abu Sayyaf group and the Philippine head of IS, was suspected of hiding. Hapilon also leads an umbrella of smaller militant groups, including the Maute.
Soldiers in February distribute wanted flyers for Isnilon Hapilon, who has a US government $5 bounty for his capture.
The raid quickly went wrong after Maute militants called in reinforcements and overran government forces. The militants sealed off parts of the city, raised the IS black flag and torched buildings, including churches and schools.
In response, President Rodrigo Duterte imposed 60 days of martial law on Tuesday across Mindanao, the country’s second largest island and home to an impoverished Muslim minority.
Read: Duterte’s real motives behind declaring martial law
Military vehicles move between vehicles of residents fleeing Marawi.
The southern Philippines has long faced Islamist insurgencies, but Duterte has warned IS seeks to spread its influence and ideology.
Authorities said foreign fighters from Malaysia, Indonesia and other nationalities were among the six foreigners killed on Thursday, raising concern over wider influence of transnational jihad on the island.
“Before it was just a local terrorist group. But now they have subscribed to the ideology of ISIS (Islamic State),” Solicitor General Jose Calida told a news conference. “They want to make Mindanao part of the caliphate.”
“People they consider as infidels, whether Christians or Muslims, are also targets of opportunity,” he said. “What it worrisome is that the ISIS has radicalized a number of Filipino Muslim youth.”
cw/rc (AP, dpa, Reuters)