ISIS-Backed Militants Gain Ground In The Philippines

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Violent clashes between local militants and government forces in the southern Philippines have sparked fears of a wider campaign from the Islamic State in its global jihad. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has since declared martial law throughout the affected regions.

The latest reports from Marawi City, the capital of the Lanao del Sur province and one of the hubs of the Mindanao region, said 19 civilians, 11 military, and four policemen have been killed by Islamist militants in street battles. The civilian deaths included three women and a child, officials said, while a priest and several worshippers were taken hostage- there has been no word on their condition. However, according to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), 61 terrorists have been killed, and 124 civilians have been rescued.

Conflicts between government forces and the Maute group, an Islamist militant organization based in Mindanao, began to escalate last Tuesday. Presidential spokesman Ernesto Albella confirmed that the fighters had taken over several government buildings in Marawi and had torched others- including a church, a school, and a city jail. It is not clear from his statement how much damage the arson had caused. Manila has mobilized attack helicopters and special police forces in an attempt to combat and control the chaos.

Local resident Chico Usman said the militants had entered the predominantly Muslim city with an estimated population of 200,000 wearing masks and carrying assault rifles.

“Everybody was shocked and ran into their houses,” Usman said, adding that they had heard gunfire and fighting well into the next morning. Black ISIS flags with the words “There is no god but God” in white text have since been spotted flying from “every corner in the city” according to Usman. He spoke to CNN from near Saguiaran, a town outside Marawi where thousands of residents have taken temporary shelter. 

Police have also discovered the bodies of eight workmen on the outskirts of the city. Thought to be fleeing Marawi, witnesses said the victims were asked to recite verses from the Qur’an. Their hands were tied together, and most of the men were shot in the head when they did not comply. A sign saying “munafik,” roughly translated to traitor, was attached to one of the bodies.

The main militant force driving the attacks is known as Maute, after two brothers, Omar and Abdullah Maute, who reportedly ran a criminal gang in nearby Butig before turning to armed insurrection. The trigger for their uprising is thought to be a failed attempt to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, the group’s leader. Hapilon was designated as the ISIS emir for Southeast Asia last year. He was previously second-in-command of the al-Qaida linked terrorist group based in Basilan. The group is notorious for bomb attacks, beheadings of western hostages, and its connects to Jemaah Islamiyah, which carried out the 2002 Bali bombings. The militants’ aim is supposedly greater autonomy or independence from the ‘Christian’ government in Manila, but many find flaws in that declaration, as one of their main demands includes increased control over the impoverished region’s mostly untapped natural resources.

“What’s happening in Mindanao is no longer a rebellion of Filipino citizens,” said Philippines Solicitor General Jose Calida during a press conference. “It has transmogrified into invasion by foreign terrorists. They want to create Mindanao as part of the caliphate.”

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