Southern Philippines: In Marawi, Displaced Residents Tell Stories of Despair

Mark Navales and Jeoffrey Maitem
2017.05.30
Marawi, Philippines
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170530-PH-marawai-620.jpg People seeking refuge from intense fighting in the besieged southern Philippine city of Marawi crowd into an evacuation center in the nearby town of Balo-I, May 30, 2017.
Mark Navales/BenarNews

Tens of thousands of people fleeing battles between Islamic State (IS)-linked militants and government forces in the Philippine city of Marawi have packed into nearby evacuation centers, while at least 2,000 civilians were trying to get out, humanitarian workers said Tuesday.

As the fighting entered its eighth day, the Philippine military said it had regained control of most of Marawi, a predominantly Muslim city in the far south that has largely been abandoned by 200,000-plus residents, as remnants of the Abu Sayyaf and Maute militant groups, including foreign gunmen, engaged troops in street-to-street clashes.

“There are still people stranded inside, an estimated 2,000 plus inside the war zone,” said local relief volunteer Saripada Pacasum. “They have been texting us on mobile zones, asking for help to be able to get out.”

Humanitarian officials also reported that supplies of food and medicine were dwindling fast at crowded evacuation centers in the surrounding area. In one center alone, in the town of Saguiaran, more than 3,800 families totaling close to 20,000 people had packed in as they sought shelter and relief from the fighting, officials said.

Saripada Pacasum said volunteers had requested troops temporarily halt the offensive, but this plea was ignored.

Marawi resident Jamal Ali Ala, 34, said she and her husband, Omar, 29, had walked on city streets littered with dead people, before the couple was picked up by volunteers after crossing into an area controlled by troops.

“We have friends and relatives who are still inside,” the besieged city, she told BenarNews.

She said the gunmen asked the couple if they were devout Muslims and made them recite some verses before they were allowed to walk away.

A volunteer assesses a woman and her baby at an evacuation center near Marawi in Saguiaran, Lanao del Sur, May 29, 2017. [Richel V. Umel/Benar News]

Government ultimatum

On Tuesday, military helicopters began an aerial bombardment of Marawi’s city center, which the militants still controlled, according to the military.

The death toll in a week of fighting has left at least 65 rebel fighters, 24 civilians and 20 government forces dead, authorities said. Troops have so far retaken 85 percent of the city, officials said, but the rebels have positioned snipers at strategic points, including in abandoned buildings.

Parts of the city erupted in flames last week when the military and police moved to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the extremist Abu Sayyaf group who is recognized as the chief of the IS affiliate in the Philippines and who is wanted for a string of atrocities including bombings and kidnappings.

But they were surprised when the assault team learned that Isnilon was backed by mostly young fighters from the Maute group, the latest radical Islam group here blamed for the recent spate of bombings. Intense clashes followed with gunmen fanning out into the city.

Foreign fighters were with them, believed to be from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, the military said. Among the foreign fighters, at least three Malaysians and one Indonesian have been killed, military officials said Tuesday, according to reports.

By taking over much of the city during the past week, the IS-linked militants were intent on establishing a regional chapter of IS, Philippine Military Chief of Staff Gen. Eduardo Ano told the Associated Press.

“They wanted to show the world that there is an ISIS branch here which can inflict the kind of violence that has been seen in Syria and Iraq,” Ano said, using another acronym for IS.

Also on Tuesday, the military gave the militants an ultimatum to surrender, reports said.

“For the terrorists, not surrendering will mean sure death,” military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said according to Agence France-Presse.

Philippine troops conduct a sweep during counter-militant operations in Marawi, where the military said it had regained control of 85 percent of the city from IS-linked fighters, May 30, 2017. [Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews]

‘Want to live for another day’

Meanwhile, a Catholic priest who had been taken captive by the militants appeared in a video Tuesday, in which he pleaded for the government’s help and said the gunmen were holding as many as 200 people hostage in Marawi, according to other reports.

“We still want to live for another day, a month and a few years. Please consider us, Mr. President,” Father Teresito “Chito” Soganub, the vicar general of Marawi, said in addressing his appeal to Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte, according to Reuters.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), some 3,000 residents of Marawi are known to be trapped inside their homes, many of them elderly or sick people who were left behind by the first few waves of evacuees.

Red Cross deputy head Martin Thalmann was in Marawi on Tuesday, where he was trying to negotiate a temporary halt to the violence and create a humanitarian corridor to allow them to bring the civilians out.

“It’s very difficult to go into the fighting zones to do anything,” he told reporters. “We understand that there were also the elderly and the sick people who need transport because they cannot walk.”

Close to 4,000 displaced families from the deserted city of Marawi line up to collect relief supplies from the  International Committee for the Red Cross at an evacuation center in Saguiran, May 29, 2017. [Richel V. Umel/Benar News]

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