Philippines puts city on lockdown over fears of militant infiltration


Philippine forces control most of a southern city where militants linked to the Islamic State group launched a bloody siege almost a week ago, authorities said Monday, as the army launched airstrikes and went house-to-house to crush areas of resistance. This brings the combined official death toll to at least 85.

The little-known Maute group has staged similar, days-long sieges on Mindanao island but none on the scale of Marawi, where witnesses said flags resembling those of Islamic State had been flown and some men were wearing black headbands.

In a separate incident, eight other people were found dead in a ravine along the Iligan-Marawi road on Sunday morning.

A paper sign attached to one of the men indicated that the victims had "betrayed their faith", the police said.

Philippine marines walk to the frontline in the continuing assaults to retake control of some areas of Marawi city Sunday, May 28, 2017 in southern Philippines. "We found their bodies while conducting rescue operations [on Saturday]", regional military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jo-ar Herrera said.

Civilians stuck in Marawi were without food and were as anxious about rocket strikes as much as they were the militants, said Zia Alonto Adiong, a politician coordinating efforts to evacuate civilians.

Hundreds of Marawi city residents have fled as the military operations to flush out the militants intensified.

Later on Tuesday, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte declared the entire island of Mindanao under martial rule for 60 days and cut short his five-day visit to Moscow.

The fierce resistance of the Maute gunmen and the apparent executions of civilians will add to growing fears that subscribers to ISIS's radical ideology are determined to establish a presence in the southern Philippines, with the support of extremists from Indonesia and Malaysia.

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The crisis has claimed the lives of 19 civilians, 18 government troops and 61 extremists, according to presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella, making it the worst in the Mindanao region in nearly four years.

The President said the influence of Islamic State remained one of the country's top security concerns and warned martial law could soon be extended across the Philippines.

"We heard gunfire, although I'm not sure if it was the same people who were shot", he said at the scene.

A spokesman confirmed that the fighters had taken over several government buildings in the city, and had torched others, including a church, a school and the city jail.

During an event, he also "joked" that under the martial law he imposed, the soldiers could even rape without consequences.

As of Sunday, 61 terrorists were killed in the ongoing fighting, which started from a botched raid by government forces on Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon.

Deputy minority leader Francis Pangilinan said Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana was hopeful that Marawi will be cleared of militants by June 2.

AFP WestMinCom chief Lieutenant General Carlito G. Galvez, Jr., said as fighting continues in Marawi, their units are constrained to launch airstrikes in identified specific targets occupied by the Maute/ISIS terrorist group.

Hapilon, an Islamic preacher, is a commander of the Abu Sayyaf militant group who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in 2014.