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Philippines forces make gains in southern city under siege

29 May 2017

Government and volunteer rescue workers are scrambling to account for 3, 717 villagers stranded in areas where there are still sporadic skirmishes between Islamic State-inspired Maute militants and government forces trying to drive them away from Marawi City.

Officials say they remain confident that they'll take the city soon, however, saying they believe the militants are low on ammunition and food.

Marawi City is the capital of Lanao del Sur, which has 39 towns, about three of them with a noticeable presence of the Maute terror group, also known as the Dawlah Islamiya Philippines.

(AP Photo/Bullit Marquez). 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.

Philippine forces said they're in control of most of Marawi, the southern city where nearly 100 people were killed and 60,000 displaced following clashes in the past week between the military and Muslim extremists linked to Islamic State.

Maute militants have pledged allegiance to Islamic State and have been battling government troops since laying siege to a southern city six days ago.

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"This development validates a series of reports of atrocities committed by the militants earlier", said military spokesman, Restituto Padilla. In recent days, gunmen have managed to fend off attack helicopters, armored vehicles and scores of soldiers.

There were still bodies of civilians in Marawi and residents urged the military to halt air strikes, said Zia Alonto Adiong, a politician involved in evacuation efforts. "And we're trying to isolate all these pockets of resistance that have remained", Padilla said.

The Maute group's ability to fight off the military for so long will add to fears that Islamic State's radical ideology is spreading in the southern Philippines and it could become a haven for militants from Indonesia, Malaysia and beyond.

President Rodrigo Duterte placed Mindanao under martial law on May 23 as insurgents in Marawi with Islamic State flags burned buildings, occupied offices and freed more than 100 inmates from jail.

Padilla said Sunday that combat operations were still going on, but that the militants were weakening.

The militants have killed at least 19 civilians, including three women and a child who were found dead near a university, regional military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jo-ar Herrera told AFP.

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Though most people have left, thousands are stranded, anxious they could be intercepted by militants at checkpoints on routes out of the city.

The fighting began Tuesday, after government forces attacked a group of militants said to be protecting Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of Abu Sayyaf, an Islamist gang that kidnaps people for ransom. There was no word on their condition.

During a visit on Saturday (27/05) to an army base on Jolo island, where Philippine forces are fighting another Islamist group, the Abu Sayyaf, Duterte said he would treat communist and separatist guerrillas the same as government troops if they join his fight. The fighters traveling with Hapilon requested reinforcements from the Maute Group, turning a small firefight into a full-scale battle.

The government believes the Maute carried out their assault before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan to capture the attention of Islamic State and earn recognition as a Southeast Asian affiliate. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters that Hapilon has received funds from the Islamic State group.

The United States regards Hapilon as one of the world's most unsafe terrorists and has offered a bounty of $5 million for his capture.

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Philippines forces make gains in southern city under siege