Philippine government troops on Sunday recovered the bodies of 16 civilians allegedly slain by Islamic militants who have besieged the southern city of Marawi, as fighting raged here for another day, the military said.
The killings of two batches of eight people – including one where the victims appeared to have been executed by Islamic gunmen – marked the first confirmation of reported atrocities committed against civilians since battles broke out in Marawi last week.
The military said the killers had left a sign near the bodies indicating they were “traitors” of Islam, the predominant religion of this city of 200,000 people on Mindanao island that has been virtually emptied after six days of fighting between Islamic State-linked militants and government forces. Some of the victims’ hands were found bound.
“One of the groups of eight was recovered 300 meters [984 feet] outside of MSU [Mindanao State University] and along a roadway were eight dead bodies of civilians who were mercilessly killed by the terrorists,” military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said.
“These consisted of four males, three females and a child. This development validates a series of reports of atrocities committed by the militants earlier,” he added.
Padilla said the Philippine armed forces would carry on with “precision airstrikes and artillery fire” in the area to clear Marawi of IS-linked members of the Abu Sayyaf and Maute militant groups.
He put the death toll in six days of fighting in and around Marawi at 61 Muslim fighters, 11 soldiers and four policemen. The number of wounded government soldiers stood at 39 on Sunday.
Civilians flee as Islamic State-linked militants and government forces battle one another in Marawi, southern Philippines, May 27, 2017. [Mark Navales/BenarNews]
Violence exploded on May 23 when troops and police moved in to arrest Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, the acknowledged leader of IS’s Philippine branch.
They were surprised to find out, however, that Isnilon’s force was backed up by an estimated 100 fighters from the Maute group, a small, formerly insignificant militant force in Mindanao whose first claim to terrorist violence was the bombing of Davao City last September, in which 15 people were killed.
The gunmen have since occupied the city hall, a hospital and a jail and have torched several buildings, including a Catholic church. The outbreak of violence prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law for the whole of Mindanao island in order to quell the rebellion, by giving troops extraordinary powers to arrest suspected militants.
The fighting also led to the mass evacuation of residents of Marawi, a city long acknowledged as a southern center of Islamic culture in the predominantly Catholic Philippines.
On Sunday, some 2,000 civilians were said to be trapped in Marawi and trying desperately to get out.
“They have been sending us text messages, calling our hotline, requesting us to send rescue teams but we cannot simply go to areas which are inaccessible to us,” said Zia Alonto Adiong, a spokesman for a provincial crisis management committee, Agence France-Presse reported.
“They want to leave. They are afraid for their safety. Some are running out of food to eat. They fear they will be hit by bullets, by airstrikes,” he said.
Goodwill at start of Ramadan
On Saturday, residents in nearby villages welcomed the first full day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan by offering help to evacuees from Marawi.
Exhausted and hungry residents were seen traveling with the young and old from the besieged city, causing monstrous gridlock as they sought the safety of evacuation centers.
In the village of Balo-I town in Lanao del Norte province, adjacent to Marawi, evacuees were flagged down not by soldiers but by sympathetic villagers, who offered them sandwiches, rice cakes, eggs and water.
“Free Food” read a makeshift poster hanging outside a house where a community gathering took place on Saturday.
In the front lawn of the house, cauldrons and pans filled with sweet potatoes were being cooked for passersby.
A young Muslim girl held a sign that read “libre,” which means “free” in the local dialect, to entice the travelers to make a brief stop while a little army of volunteers passed around the food.
“We want to help both Muslim brothers and Christians alike in this time of need,” Amir Riga, 28, a young professional who started the roadside eatery, told BenarNews.
Civilians displaced by the fighting in Marawi take shelter at an evacuation center in the nearby town of Pantar, May 27, 2017. [Mark Navales/BenarNews]