Filipino troops, gunships fight militants in southern city

MARAWI, Philippines (AP) - Philippine government forces launched "precision attacks" Thursday to clear militants linked to the Islamic State group from a southern city that has been under siege since a raid to capture a militant on the USA list of most-wanted terrorists failed.

Fighting erupted on Tuesday after a bungled raid by security forces on a Maute hideout, which spiraled into chaos, with gunmen seizing bridges, roads and buildings and taking Christians hostage.

Catholics in the Philippine capital have attended a Mass for people in the southern region now under martial law and in Marawi.

At least 44 people have died, including 31 militants and 11 soldiers. It is not clear if any civilians are among the dead.

The violence has forced thousands to flee and raised fears of growing extremism in the country. "If you rape three [women], I will say that I did it".

Militants of the Maute group stormed the city of Marawi, on the southern Philippines island Mindanao, on Tuesday. But human rights groups have expressed fears that martial law powers could further embolden Duterte, whom they have accused of allowing extrajudicial killings of thousands of people in his crackdown on illegal drugs.

Still, he also offered dialogue to militants who are not on the streets fighting. "And if you can not be convinced to stop fighting, so be it. Let's just fight". "I'm just praying that the bullets will not find their way to my house and hit us". The Philippines launched an airstrike that wounded him in January, but he got away. But soldiers have been going house-to-house to clear the city of militants.

"If Allah wills it so, then we can not stop it", he said, pointing his finger in the air. "We want to finish this problem as soon as possible".

Six foreign fighters were believed to have died in the bloodshed, according to Philippine military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, including Malaysians, Indonesians and another nationality which he did not specify.

Much of Marawi remains a no-go zone, but disturbing details have emerged.

A policeman was similarly caught at a checkpoint set up by the militants and beheaded on Wednesday, President Rodrigo Duterte said.

Romeo Enriquez said he is fine, adding that there may have been confusion because a former Malabang police chief was killed in the fighting - but he was not beheaded.

While pursuing peace talks with two large Muslim rebel groups in the south, Mr Duterte has ordered the military to destroy smaller extremist groups which have tried to align with the IS group.

Reports said that the sound of gunfire and explosions could be heard, and plumes of black smoke rose from the direction of the city center.

At the Mass in Manila, nun Mary John Mananzan called on people to pray and noted that hostages had been taken, including a priest from the cathedral in Marawi.

Hapilon, an Arabic-speaking Islamic preacher known for his expertise in commando assaults, is a commander of the Abu Sayyaf militant group.

Fighting between government forces and the Maute group, an Islamist militant organization based in Mindanao, began Tuesday afternoon in Marawi, a city of about 200,000 people.

Militants with ties to the Islamic State have taken control of a city in the southern Philippines.

The southern Philippines has been troubled by decades-long Muslim separatist uprisings in the predominantly Catholic nation.

  • Joanne Flowers