Sol­diers launch at­tacks in be­sieged Philip­pine city

Cape Breton Post - - World -

Backed by tanks and rock­et­fir­ing he­li­copters, Philip­pine troops launched “pre­ci­sion at­tacks” Thurs­day to clear ex­trem­ists linked to the Is­lamic State group from a city that has been un­der siege since a raid that failed to cap­ture one of Asia’s most-wanted mil­i­tants.

Rebels have torn through the streets of Marawi since Tues­day night, torch­ing build­ings, tak­ing a priest and his wor­ship­pers hostage and seal­ing off much of the city. The vi­o­lence forced thou­sands to flee and raised fears of grow­ing ex­trem­ism in the coun­try.

At least 44 peo­ple have died in the fight­ing, in­clud­ing 31 mil­i­tants and 11 sol­diers, of­fi­cials said. Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte said a lo­cal po­lice chief was stopped at a mil­i­tant check­point and be­headed, and an­other po­lice­man was also re­port­edly killed.

It was not im­me­di­ately clear whether civil­ians were among the dead.

“At night we can hear the gun­fire,” said Mo­ham­mad Us­man,

who watched from his home just out­side Marawi as thou­sands of res­i­dents streamed out of the city. “I’m just pray­ing that the

bul­lets will not find their way to my house and hit us. I hope that the bombs will not land nearby and harm us.”

Duterte im­posed 60 days of mar­tial law Tues­day on the is­land of Min­danao, which en­com­passes the south­ern third of the na­tion and is home to 22 mil­lion peo­ple. Marawi has a pop­u­la­tion of around 200,000.

Duterte warned he may ex­pand mar­tial law na­tion­wide, an un­nerv­ing de­vel­op­ment for many in the Philip­pines who lived through the rule of Fer­di­nand Mar­cos. Mar­cos de­clared mar­tial law in 1972 and used it to main­tain his grip on power for more than a decade.

The man at the cen­tre of the Marawi vi­o­lence is Is­nilon Hapi­lon, an Ara­bic-speak­ing Is­lamic preacher known for his ex­per­tise in com­mando as­saults. He is at the nexus of sev­eral mil­i­tant groups that are try­ing to merge into a more pow­er­ful force.

Hapi­lon, who is a com­man­der of the Abu Sayyaf mil­i­tant group, pledged al­le­giance to the Is­lamic State group in 2014. He also heads an al­liance that in­cludes at least 10 smaller mil­i­tant groups, in­clud­ing the Maute, which have a heavy pres­ence in Marawi and were in­stru­men­tal in fight­ing off gov­ern­ment forces in this week’s bat­tles.

AP PHOTO

Res­i­dents board a truck as they evac­u­ate to safety while Gov­ern­ment troops bat­tle with Mus­lim mil­i­tants in Marawi city, south­ern Philip­pine, Thurs­day.

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