Philippines officials recovered 17 bodies, five of them with heads severed, on Wednesday from a combat zone in war-torn Marawi City. This comes after the authorities warned that the death toll among civilians caught in weeks- long clashes between security forces and Muslim militants could rise dramatically.
Brigadier-General Rolando Bautista, head of Joint Task Force Marawi, said in a statement that all 17 civilians were executed by the militants.
Lieutenant-Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera, spokesman for the task force, said most of the bodies were decomposed and mangled. "The bodies are all in an advanced state of decomposition, and with parts mixed up, that we're not even sure we actually have 17. In some, only the bones remained. But they were all killed by Maute," he told The StraitsTimes.
He referred to the group that seized parts of Marawi on May 23 in a bid to turn it into a "province" of the ultra-radical Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
On Wednesday, the Marawi City battle entered its 36th day of intense gunfights and bombing in the heart of town. Black-clad fighters were seen from afar running between buildings as explosions rang out.
At a media briefing, Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, the military spokesman, said that it was likely that large numbers of civilians had already been killed. "The numbers... may increase significantly once we are able to validate all this information," he added.
Padilla cited accounts by fleeing civilians of dozens of bodies scattered across districts where fighting between government troops and the militants has been raging for five weeks. He blamed those deaths on "atrocities committed by the terrorists".
Since the early days of fighting, the militants have been reportedly killing civilians.
On May 28, the bodies of eight men, all shot in the head, were found in a shallow ditch. They were caught and executed by the militants while there fleeing Marawi. On June 13, militants were reported to have gunned down five men hiding inside a house with 13 others.
ISIS' Amaq news agency posted several videos on the chat app Telegram that showed the militants beheading a hostage and a police officer, and executing six other men with shots to the head.
Meanwhile, President Rodrigo Duterte said on Wednesday that it could not be helped that there would be civilian casualties in Marawi. "We don't mean to see civilians dying. But a bullet does not discriminate... (I told my soldiers), 'Do not hesitate to kill just because there are civilians there.' "It is the duty of civilians to flee... It's really a war," he said.