Army controls most of Marawi city in Mindanao

Only a few small areas of the city remain under jihadi control. The Filipino air force carried out its first air strikes yesterday. About 2,200 people are still trapped in the combat zone. So far, 97 people have been killed. The fate of Fr Chito and 13 other hostages remains unknown. President Duterte’s imposition of martial law has generated fear of authoritarian rule.

Marawi (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The Armed Forces of the Philippines say they are now in control of most of Marawi, a mostly Muslim populated city of 200,000 on the island of Mindanao.

Almost a week ago, gunmen linked to the Islamic State group launched a bloody attack against the city. On 23 May they burnt the Catholic cathedral and abducted some people.

Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella said Monday that only small areas of Marawi are held by Maute fighters and Abu Sayyaf jihadists.

Fighting in Marawi intensified as the militants showed unexpected strength, fending off the military, which has unleashed attack helicopters, armoured vehicles and scores of soldiers.

The military yesterday launched air strikes against terrorists, as hundreds of civilians hoisted white flags on their homes to avoid being targeted by the planes.

The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao’s Humanitarian Emergency Action Response Team reported that 42,142 people had been evacuated as of 5 pm Saturday.

Some 30,600 people found refuge in various evacuation centres, whilst 11,500 others are staying with relatives outside Marawi City. However, about 2,200 residents are still trapped in the combat zone.

Meanwhile, soldiers continue their door-to-door operations to find jihadists. The authorities announced yesterday that 19 bodies were found in the streets of the city, eight of them civilians – four men, three women and a child – executed by terrorists.

At least 97 people have died since fighting broke out, including 19 civilians, 61 members of the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups, 13 soldiers and four policemen. Some of terrorists were foreigners, including Malaysians and Indonesians.

Fighting in Marawi broke out on 23 May, when the Filipino forces tried to capture Isnilon Hapilon, an extremist Islamic leader. Under attack from government troops, Hapilon and more than a dozen of his men summoned reinforcement from the Maute militant group. Almost 50 gunmen managed to enter the city.

Hapilon managed to escape. Some of his fighters seized parts of Marawi, burning buildings, including the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Help of Christians. They also took 14 hostages, including a priest, Fr Teresito "Chito" Suganob. Their fate is unknown at the time.

Unconfirmed reports say that the clergyman might have been released.  “News from Marawi is very confused, but Fr Chito’s release is credible since he is known and respected by local Muslims,” a source told AsiaNews. " As for the three employees and ten worshippers, the militants plan to use them as human shields in negotiations with the government."

Hapilon heads the Abu Sayyaf group. In 2014 he pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group and its leader al Baghdadi, and was later appointed "emir of all Islamic State forces in the Philippines”.

The Maute group is one of the new Filipino Islamist armed groups who adopted the ideology of the Caliphate and formed an alliance with other Filipino groups ostensibly under Hapilon's leadership.

The violence prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law for 60 days in the south of the country, scene of fighting for decades, and home to the country’s Muslim minority (20 per cent of the Filipino population).

In the past few months, President Duterte had warned that he could impose it if rebels carried out violent actions. The government has tried to carry out peace talks with Islamic rebels, but has also sent the army to destroy the smaller armed groups linked to the Islamic State.

In view of the president’s decision, civil rights groups and opposition have expressed fear that martial law might tip the country towards authoritarian rule.

"Critics believe that the violence is just a pretext,” another source told AsiaNews. However, “most people back Duterte. In the past year, Mindanao has become a training ground for Filipino and foreign Islamists, and people are scared. Intolerance against Christians is growing, even though the government does not speak about it."

Still, the president’s statements are fuelling fears. Yesterday, he said that he would ignore the Supreme Court and the Congress if any extension of the martial law was not granted.

“Until the police and the Armed Forces say the Philippines is safe, this martial law will continue. I will not listen to others. The Supreme Court justices, the congressmen, they are not here,” Duterte told soldiers on Saturday.

The 1987 Constitution imposes limits on martial law to prevent a repeat of the abuses carried out under the regime of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was deposed in 1986 by the People Power revolution.

The Constitution requires Congress to approve the president’s declaration of martial law and limits military rule to 60 days.

If the President wants to extend the duration of martial law, he or she must again get congressional endorsement.