Dozens flee ‘ISIL gunmen’ in besieged Philippine city

Marawi City residents describe scenes of panic and tragedy as they attempt to escape battle between troops and fighters.

marawi city
A soldier carries a girl who was trapped for 11 days with her family at Pangarungan Village in Marawi City [Rody/AFP]

Dozens of civilians caught in the middle of a deadly battle for a southern Philippine city ran to safety on Saturday, fleeing military air raids and fighters – but as many as 2,000 people still remain trapped in desperate conditions.

The group of 38 said they ran from their hiding place in a part of Marawi City controlled by fighters linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), as soldiers seized a key bridge in the area to give the civilians safe passage.

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The battle for Marawi, a city on Mindanao island, began almost two weeks ago and prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law in the southern region.

“We lay on the floor in the dark each night whenever we heard gunshots or explosions. We barricaded the doors with furniture and a refrigerator,” high school teacher Jerona Sedrome, 27, told the AFP news agency.

“The ISIL [fighters] tried to force their way into the house and got in at the second attempt, so we hid in a tunnel beneath the house,” she added.

The death toll from the conflict has reached at least 175 people – mostly fighters, some soldiers and dozens of civilians.

Hundreds of gunmen rampaged through the predominantly Muslim city of 200,000 on May 23 after government forces attempted to arrest their leader, Isnilon Hapilon.

Up to 50 gunmen continued to control downtown Marawi nearly two weeks later with at least 15 hostages, including a Catholic priest, with some being used as human shields, the military said.

Humanitarian concerns

Thousands of people have so far fled Marawi, but authorities believe as many as 2,000 civilians are still trapped in the city, most of them in areas controlled by the fighters. They are likely to be without food and water, while some are injured or ailing as security forces mount a relentless assault.

“The need for food, clean water, healthcare and sanitation is growing as authorities try to cope with the sudden influx of evacuees,” the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Friday.

“Those who try to leave the fighting in Marawi often do not have means to move out; public vehicles going into the city were also halted due to tightened security,” the aid organisation added, saying that residents relied on NGOs to be able to leave the city.

Humanitarian concerns are growing as fighting grips the predominantly Muslim Marawi City [ICRC]
Humanitarian concerns are growing as fighting grips the predominantly Muslim Marawi City [ICRC]

The military has said it is firing artillery and rockets from the air, as well as dropping conventional bombs, as ground forces in armoured vehicles fight their way in dodging sniper fire, improvised explosives and anti-tank rockets.

At least 70 people were rescued on Saturday as intense fighting continued, including 23 teachers from Dansalan College, who were with a year-old baby, seven other children, and seven other adults.

On the first fay of the fighting, the gunmen set alight the college, and the teachers said bombs and fires also destroyed many of the houses around the house where they hid. 

Dansalan college is run by the Jesuit order of the Catholic Church, and all the teachers were Christians.

‘We passed corpses being eaten by maggots’

The teachers recounted to AFP, between tears and gulps of coffee and bottled water, how they survived on steamed rice and rainwater.

“If it didn’t rain we had no water and we didn’t eat,” said Sedrome’s younger sister and fellow teacher, Jane Rose Sedrome, 25.

The elder sister said they secretly communicated with government rescuers by mobile phone text messages through their ordeal, and made their break for freedom when informed the gunmen had been driven away from the bridge.

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But they had to go through the sniper alley of Bangolo, the city’s old quarter which is one of the targets of the day and night air strikes.

“We passed three corpses being eaten by maggots. They smelled really bad,” fellow teacher Regene Apao, 23, told AFP.

“We knew they were ISIL because they wore black clothing and black head masks.”

Arnold Balo, 28, an ice cream factory worker, said he cradled a boy in one hand and carried a half-metre long machete in the other, their only protection from the gunmen.

At one point during their sprint for freedom, a gunman perched near the top of a building aimed a sniper rifle at him and ordered him to put his weapon on the ground, Balo said.

“I will do as you order, sir. Please don’t kill us,” he said he told the gunman. Balo said he put down the machete, and the gunman allowed the group to pass.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte visits the wake of a soldier killed by friendly fire [Presidential Palace/Handout/Reuters]
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte visits the wake of a soldier killed by friendly fire [Presidential Palace/Handout/Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies