MARAWI, Philippines (AP) — Philippine military jets fired rockets at militant positions Saturday as soldiers fought to wrest control of a southern city from gunmen linked to the Islamic State group, witnesses said. Civilians waved flags from their windows to show they are not combatants.
The city of Marawi, home to some 200,000 people, has been under siege by IS-linked militants since a failed raid Tuesday night on a suspected hideout of Isnilon Hapilon, who is on Washington's list of most-wanted terrorists. Hapilon got away and fighters loyal to him took over parts of the city, burning buildings and seizing about a dozen hostages, including a priest. Their condition was not known.
At least 44 people have died in the fighting, including 31 militants and 11 soldiers, officials say. It was not clear whether civilians were among the dead.
The violence prompted President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday to declare 60 days of martial law in the southern Philippines, where a Muslim rebellion has raged for decades. But the recent violence has raised fears that extremism could be growing as smaller militant groups unify and align themselves with the ideology of the Islamic State group.
Although Hapilon and other groups in the southern Philippines have pledged allegiance to the IS, there is no clear sign of significant, material ties.
Thousands of civilians have been fleeing.
"I saw two jets swoop down and fire at rebel positions repeatedly," Alexander Mangundatu, a security guard, told The Associated Press in Marawi as a plume of black smoke billowed in the distance. "I pity the civilians and the women who were near the targeted area. They're getting caught in the conflict and I hope this ends soon."
Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said government forces are working to "clear the city of all remnants of this group."
He said some civilians refused to evacuate because they want to guard their homes, slowing down the government operations.
"But that's fine as long as civilians are not hurt," Padilla said.
On Friday, Duterte ordered his troops to crush the militants, warning that the country is at a grave risk of "contamination" by the Islamic State group.
Duterte told soldiers in Iligan, a city near Marawi, that he had long feared that "contamination by ISIS" loomed in the country's future, using the acronym for the Islamic State group.
"You can say that ISIS is here already," he said.
Lt. Gen. Carlito G. Galvez Jr., a military commander, said civilians are enduring "extreme deprivation" because government services are unavailable and shops are closed.
"These terrorist atrocities continue to sow terror and confusion even to noncombatant Muslims and Christians," he said in a statement.
Hapilon is still hiding out in the city under the protection of gunmen who are desperately trying to find a way to extricate him, said the Philippines' military chief, Gen. Eduardo Ano. He said Hapilon suffered a stroke after a government airstrike wounded him in January.
Ano predicted that the military operation will take about a week as soldiers go house to house to clear the city of militants.
In a sign that the long-standing problem of militancy in the south could be expanding, Solicitor General Jose Calida said foreigners were fighting alongside the gunmen in Marawi, including Indonesians and Malaysians.
Ano also said foreign fighters were believed to be inside, but he was more cautious. "We suspect that, but we're still validating," he said.
Hapilon, an Islamic preacher, is a commander of the Abu Sayyaf militant group who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in 2014. He also heads an alliance of at least 10 smaller militant groups, including the Maute, which have a heavy presence in Marawi and were instrumental in fighting off government forces in this week's battles.
Washington has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to Hapilon's capture.