TARGETING CIVILIANS: Military troops begin their offensive against militants in Marawi City –
MANILA: Militants holed out for more than a month in besieged Marawi City in the southern Philippines have been beheading civilians, the military said on Monday, as troops resumed their offensive after a temporary halt.
The death toll in the conflict in Marawi City, 800 kilometres south of Manila, has reached more than 400, including 25 civilians who died from illnesses in evacuation centres. Nearly 300 of the dead were militants, while 70 were government forces.
The number of civilians killed by the militants reached 30 after rescued residents said they witnessed the beheading of four people, according to the military.
“We have been receiving numerous reports that the militants were executing all the Christians they capture,” Brigadier General Restituto Padilla, a military spokesman, told Manila radio station DZMM.
“There is strong proof that they are doing this not only during the start of the fighting but until now,” Padilla said, noting that videos of the beheadings have allegedly been uploaded online by sympathizers.
Colonel Edgard Arevalo, Chief of the Military’s Public Affairs Office, said there were also reports that militants were executing comrades who wanted to surrender.
“Some members of the group already wanted to surrender and desert their positions, but according to reports they were executed by other members,” he told reporters in Manila.
The military imposed a “humanitarian pause” to airstrikes and ground operations on Sunday to allow Muslims to mark the end of Ramadhan amid the five-week conflict in Marawi City.
On Monday, troops resumed the offensive and the operations “will continue so we can liberate Marawi City at the soonest time possible,” said Lieutenant Colonel Joar Herrera, an army spokesman.
“We are focused and committed, and we will accomplish our mission,” he added.
The militants were intentionally setting off fires in various areas of the city and using Molotov cocktails to block advancing troops in the four districts they were still holding, Herrera said.
But the leadership of the militants was already “crumbling” as the fighters quarelled over money and top leaders have reportedly fled, including Isnilon Hapilon, who has been tagged as the emir of the IS in the Philippines.
“We have validated reports that there are leadership problems inside,” Herrera said. “They also lack ammunition, have very limited manoeuvre space and their defensive position is getting smaller too.”
The crisis in Marawi City began on May 23 when government forces attempted to arrest Hapilon, prompting hundreds of militants allied with IS to attack the municipality.
At least 200 civilians were still trapped in the fighting zone or are being held hostage by the militants. The hostages included a Catholic priest, who was still alive as of three days ago, according to the military.
“There are reports that civilians are now being used as combatants, they were being asked to man battle positions, they were being tasked to take up arms and shoot our soldiers, they were being asked to carry ammunition and ordnance,” Arevalo said.
President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao for 60 days to boost the offensive against the militants and end the conflict in Marawi City as soon as possible.
The killed militants included at least eight foreign fighters from Malaysia, Indonesia, Yemen and Chechnya in Russia, the military said.
Security officials have warned that more foreign fighters might travel to the southern Philippines to support the local militants in Marawi City and establish an State caliphate in South-East Asia.
Meanwhile, a Roman Catholic priest abducted by militants who seized parts of a southern Philippine city has been seen alive, the military said on Monday as troops pressed on with their offensive. — Agencies