Philippine Military Seeks to Secure Troubled City as Fighting Eases

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Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, and another church official said Wednesday that gunmen forced their way into a cathedral in Marawi city and seized the Rev. Chito Suganob and more than a dozen churchgoers and staff as fighting raged between government troops and Muslim militants.

The battle for Marawi began Tuesday as security forces moved in to bring down a "high-value target", specifically Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, who has reportedly been chosen to lead an ISIS division in Southeast Asia and is on the Department of Justice's most-wanted list for terrorists. Duterte cut the trip short and headed back to the Philippines.

An armoured personnel carrier belonging to government troops drives along a main highway of Pantar town, Lanao Del Norte, as it travels to reinforce Marawi city, southern Philippines May 24, 2017. "We can do that easily", Ano said, but added it was more hard in an urban setting because of the need to avoid civilian casualties.

He said troops had isolated the guerrillas but were not engaging them, and that the rebels were posting images on social media to make known their sustained presence in Marawi.

Duterte said martial law would mean checkpoints, arrests and searches without warrant, and it would go on for as long as it took to restore order, but he would not tolerate abuses of power by police or soldiers.

Herrera said two civilians had also been killed inside a hospital that the gunmen had occupied on Tuesday, and the military was investigating reports that nine people had been murdered at a checkpoint the militants had set up.

Duterte said martial law was required throughout the southern region of Mindanao, home to 20 million people, to stop the rising threat of hardline militants aligned to IS.

While the fighting has abated, the militants still control the city.

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Much of Marawi was still a no-go zone Thursday.

Thousands of people have fled the city, said Myrna Jo Henry, an emergency response official.

These include the Maute group, which is based near Marawi, hundreds of kilometres to the north of the Abu Sayyaf strongholds. He said Wednesday he is anxious about his wife, a secretary at the cathedral, because she does not have her medicines for a heart problem.

Critics chided Duterte for what they saw as an overreaction in declaring martial law on an island the size of South Korea and the second biggest in the Philippines, after an incident in one city.

The Maute group has engaged in repeated deadly battles with the military over the past year in rural areas around Marawi.

The military has not explained how Tuesday's raid on an apartment hideout went so badly wrong and spiraled into urban warfare.

The group has been blamed for a bombing that killed 15 people in southern Davao city, Duterte's hometown, last September and a number of attacks on government forces in Lanao, although it has faced setbacks from a series of military offensives.

The army sent about 100 soldiers, including US -trained special forces, to retake buildings and streets in mainly Muslim Marawi City held by militants of the Maute group, which has pledged allegiance to Islamic State. The latest close call came in January, when the military attacked militants with ground troops and airstrikes, dropping 500-pound (225-kilogram) bombs from military jets.

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