Philippines forces make gains in southern city under siege

Malaysian, Indonesian, Singaporean and other foreign militants have joined those in the Philippines, according to the military.

When asked on Monday about fears of civilians being bombed, military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla told reporters that airstrikes would be done with precision. "But we just hope and trust that both the govermment authorities as well as the people may cooperate so that human rights will always be respected within the realms of the law, whether in time of martial law or not", he said.

Still, the fighters have turned out to be remarkably well-armed and resilient.

The militant group retaliated by taking over the city, setting buildings on fire and battling government forces in the streets.

For almost a week, the Islamic gunmen have held the Philippine army at bay, burning buildings, taking at least a dozen hostages and sending tens of thousands of residents fleeing.

The latest violence flared up on May 23, after the military launched an operation targeting Isnilon Hapilon, a Filipino militant leader, who was past year designated ISIS emir for Southeast Asia.

Heavy fighting continued throughout the weekend in and around the city of Marawi, in the southern Philippines, as after the declaration of martial law, the Duterte government has dispatched the military to try to recapture the city, which has been more or less completely overrun by ISIS.

Most of Marawi's 200,000 people have left, many pouring into Iligan, some 38 km (24 miles) away, where authorities said they were stretched to the limit and anxious that Maute fighters were blending in with the displaced and could launch attacks.

The warning came as police in Metro Manila were placed on full alert status in line with the martial law declared in Mindanao following clashes between government troops and terrorists Abu Sayyaf and Maute Group.

This instability, combined with the porous maritime borders between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia that make it easy for groups to flee any crackdowns, has helped to establish the area an ideal hideout for drug smugglers, pirates, kidnap-for-cash groups, and increasingly, terrorists from across the region.

A report by the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), however, noted that while ISIS "has deepened cooperation among extremist groups in Southeast Asia", law enforcement and counter terrorist efforts remain largely national.

Along with the hundreds of fighters in the Middle East known to authorities, there are many more who are not being tracked, Bin Jani said, "militants can be very unassuming when they're not carrying their guns".

A skinny, baby-faced 51-year-old, Hapilon is originally from Basilan, an island in the southern part of Mindanao in the Sulu archipelago, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But the recent bloodshed in Marawi has raised fears that extremism is growing as smaller militant groups unify and align themselves with the Islamic State group.

The violence gripping Marawi, a militant hotbed, prompted Duterte to impose martial law for 60 days, with a subsequent warning that he would extend it to the entire country if necessary. The Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country but Mindanao has a significant Muslim population. Amid continuing poverty and other social ills, restiveness among minority Muslims has continued.

Officials say they remain confident that they'll take the city soon, however, saying they believe the militants are low on ammunition and food.

Bodies of what appeared to be executed civilians were found in a ravine outside a Marawi on Sunday as the crisis took a more sinister turn.

"We are continuously verifying that there have been a number of them who have been killed", Padilla said. "Look at what they did".

  • Leroy Wright