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Philippine forces struggle to retake city held by Islamist militants

Philippine police special forces took position while clearing a street from armed militants Monday in the city of Marawi in the southern Philippines.
Philippine police special forces took position while clearing a street from armed militants Monday in the city of Marawi in the southern Philippines.Jes Aznar/Getty Images

MARAWI, Philippines — Militants loyal to the Islamic State stubbornly resisted as government troops pushed Monday to drive them out of Marawi, a city in the southern Philippines where hundreds of desperate residents remained trapped by the fighting.

Troops have so far cleared about half the city of militants from the Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups and the foreign fighters backing them, but the insurgents have broken up into small groups and have proved elusive, according to Zia Alonto Adiong, a spokesman for the Lanao del Sur provincial government.

The military’s struggle to drive out the rebels has become a major challenge for the government of President Rodrigo Duterte, who declared martial law in the region last week and vowed to defeat the insurgents.

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There were signs that the battle was turning into a siege. Alonto said the province had imposed a nightly curfew and called on civilians to help the military fight and subdue the militants.

“Government forces are allowing citizens’ arrests,” he told reporters in Marawi. “We are calling on those who can to help us.”

As he spoke, helicopters on bombing runs circled above the city, which once bustled with a population of 200,000. It is now nearly a ghost town, with little other than intermittent bursts of gunfire to break the eerie silence.

The crisis appears to be spilling over to the nearby city of Iligan, where people fleeing the fighting have taken refuge while fearing that insurgents could be hiding among them.

“Iligan city is now overflowing, crowded because it is the choke point, the gateway in and out of Marawi,” said Colonel Alex Aduca, an army infantry commander.

“The terrorists are trying to withdraw, and those who can leave might attempt to enter Iligan by disguising themselves as evacuees,” he said. “We are carefully screening everyone, including evacuees, to make sure none of the rebels gets past us in disguise.”

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As government forces focused on driving the rebels from Marawi, they also escorted dozens of civilians from the city using armored personnel carriers and military trucks mounted with machine guns.

As of Monday, 61 militants, 20 government troops, and 19 civilians had died in the fighting, according to military and government authorities. Sixteen of those civilians were found dead Sunday, some dumped into a ravine and others near a university.

Volunteers said casualty numbers were likely to increase because there were probably many bodies in places that had yet to be reached.

Hostilities erupted last week when the military and the police moved to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, the Islamic State’s anointed leader in the Philippines and head of an Abu Sayyaf faction.

They were met by a force of about 100 militant fighters, including heavily armed insurgents from the allied Maute group. The military has said that militants from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore were also among those taking part in the clashes.