Militants kill 19 civilians in southern Philippines

This latest incident brings the combined official death to at least 85.

Militants kill 19 civilians in southern Philippines
Smoke billows behind a mosque in a residential neighbourhood of Marawi City due to fighting between government forces and the Maute militant group on Mindanao island, southern Philippines on May 28, 2017. Reuters

At least 19 civilians were killed by Islamist militants locked in street-to-street battles with security forces in a southern Philippine city, the military said on Sunday. This latest incident brings the combined official death to at least 85.

The authorities said the militants had killed 19 civilians in Marawi, a mostly Muslim-populated city of 200,000 people. The victims included three women and a child who were found dead near a university.

"These are civilians, women. These terrorists are anti-people. We found their bodies while conducting rescue operations (on Saturday)," regional military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jo-ar Herrera told AFP.

An AFP photographer saw another eight bodies by a road in the outskirts of Marawi on Sunday. The local residents identified them as employees of a rice mill and a medical college. Herrera said the military had yet to investigate the reported deaths.

The continuous violence in the country prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law on Tuesday across the southern third of the Philippines. He said the step was taken to quell a fast-growing threat of militants linked to the Islamic State (IS) group.

The violence began when dozens of gunmen went on a rampage throughout Marawi after security forces attempted to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, a veteran Filipino militant regarded as the local leader of IS.

The gunmen planted black IS flags, took a priest and up to 14 other people hostage from a church, and set fire to buildings. According to authorities, 13 soldiers, two policemen and 51 militants have died in the fighting.

Most of the city's residents have fled because of the fighting that has seen the military heavily bomb residential areas where the militants were believed to be hiding. On Saturday, the military announced the start of the Holy month of Ramadan, that it would intensify the bombing campaign.

"In as much as we would like to avoid collateral damage, these rebels are forcing the hand of government by hiding and holding out inside private homes, government buildings and other facilities," military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla said.

"Their refusal to surrender is holding the city captive. Hence, it is now increasingly becoming necessary to use more surgical airstrikes to clear the city and to bring this rebellion to a quicker end," he added.

Duterte and his military chiefs said most of the militants belong to the local Maute group, which they estimate has about 260 armed followers and has declared allegiance to IS. But, Duterte has also said that local criminals are backing the Maute in Marawi.