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Philippine soldiers prepare for an assault. Photo: Xinhua

Dozens dead as Philippine troops, supported by gunships, fight militants in southern city of Marawi

Philippine government admits foreigners have joined local militants, seeking to carve out parts of Mindanao to be ‘part of the caliphate’

Indonesians and Malaysians were among foreign Jihadists fighting the Philippine army in Mindanao island, Manila’s solicitor-general said on Friday, in a rare admission that outsiders were collaborating with domestic Islamist groups.

Philippine troops backed by armoured vehicles and rocket-firing helicopters fought to retake control of Marawi City, which has been under attack by gunmen linked to Islamic State (IS) since a raid earlier this week failed to capture one of Asia’s most-wanted militants.

Rebels have torn through the streets of Marawi since Tuesday night, torching buildings, taking a priest and his worshippers hostage and sealing off much of the city. The violence forced thousands to flee and raised fears of growing extremism in the country.

At least 44 people have died in the fighting, including 31 militants and 11 soldiers, officials said on Thursday. It was not immediately clear whether civilians were among the dead.

“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.”

Calida said the Maute group and IS wanted to create an “ISIS province” in Mindanao and the government was not the only target of their aggression.

“People they consider as infidels, whether Christians or Muslims, are also targets of opportunity,” he said. “What it worrisome is that the IS has radicalised a number of Filipino Muslim youth.”

His admission elevates the treat of what experts says are moves by IS to exploit the poverty and lawlessness of the majority Muslim southern Philippines to establish a base for extremists from Southeast Asia and beyond.

They want to make Mindanao part of the caliphate
Solicitor General Jose Calida

The man at the centre of the Marawi violence is Isnilon Hapilon, an Arabic-speaking Islamic preacher known for his expertise in commando assaults. He is at the nexus of several militant groups that are trying to merge into a more powerful force. Calida said IS had declared that Hapilon was “their emir, or leader in the Philippines”.

In a sign of the confusion over events inside the city, a local police chief said on Friday that he was alive and well – two days after President Rodrigo Duterte told the media he had been beheaded by militants.

Police Chief Romeo Enriquez said there may have been confusion because his predecessor in Malabang, a town near Marawi, was killed in the fighting on Tuesday, although he was not beheaded.

As authorities worked to clear the city, residents spoke of their terror.

“At night we can hear the gunfire,” said Mohammad Usman, who watched from his home just outside Marawi as thousands of residents streamed out of the city on Thursday. “I’m just praying that the bullets will not find their way to my house and hit us. I hope that the bombs will not land nearby and harm us.”

Duterte imposed 60 days of martial law on Tuesday on the island of Mindanao, a traditional homeland of minority Muslims that encompasses the southern third of the nation and is home to 22 million people. Marawi has a population of about 200,000.

A family carrying their belongings flee Marawi. Photo: AFP

Duterte warned he may expand martial law nationwide, an unnerving development for many in the Philippines who lived through the rule of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos declared martial law in 1972 and used it to maintain his grip on power for more than a decade.

Hapilon, who is a commander of the Abu Sayyaf militant group, pledged allegiance to IS in 2014. He also heads an alliance that includes 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. All these groups are inspired by IS, but so far there is no sign of significant, material ties.

“We have not seen any concrete evidence of material support from IS,” military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said.

But he added that the smaller groups “are working to really get that recognition and funds, of course”.

Washington has offered a US$5 million reward for information leading to Hapilon’s capture, but he has proved elusive. The Philippines launched an air strike that wounded him in January, but he got away.

The army raided what it believed to be his hideout on Tuesday night in Marawi, but the operation quickly went wrong. Militants called in reinforcements and were able to overpower government forces. Once again, Hapilon escaped. The military said it believes Hapilon was still in Marawi.

Much of Marawi was still a no-go zone. Automatic gunfire and explosions could be heard clearly and plumes of black smoke rose from the direction of the city centre. Air force helicopters swooped overhead.

Soldiers targeting the Maute militant group. Photo: Xinhua

As authorities tried to gain more control over the city, disturbing details have emerged.

Militants forced their way into the Marawi Cathedral and seized a Catholic priest, 10 worshippers and three church workers, according to the city’s bishop, Edwin de la Pena. The black flags of IS were planted atop buildings and flown from commandeered vehicles, including a government ambulance and an armoured car, said Mamintal Alonto Adiong Jnr, vice-governor of Lanao del Sur province, of which Marawi is the capital.

More than half of the population of Marawi has cleared out, Adiong said.

The problem of militancy in the south, the scene of decades-long Muslim separatist uprisings in the predominantly Catholic nation, is not new.

Duterte had repeatedly threatened to place the region under martial law, which allows him to use the armed forces to carry out arrests, searches and detentions more rapidly. But human rights groups and others fear that martial law powers could further embolden the president, who already has been accused of allowing extrajudicial killings of thousands of people in his crackdown on illegal drugs.

Additional reporting by Reuters

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: ‘I.S. is here’ Duterte warns as battle rages