MARAWI, Philippines (AP)—The militants who have besieged much of a southern Philippine city over the past week include foreign fighters and local gunmen who want to establish a regional branch of ISIS, the military said Tuesday.
Soldiers have taken control of about 70 percent of Marawi, where the gunmen have been fending off the army for a week, military chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Ano said. About 100 militants, troops and civilians have been killed.
“They wanted to show the world that there is an ISIS branch here which can inflict the kind of violence that has been seen in Syria and Iraq,” Ano told The Associated Press, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.
The siege in Marawi followed an unsuccessful army raid that attempted to capture militant commander Isnilon Hapilon, who has been designated by ISIS as its leader in the Philippines.
Marawi is regarded as the heartland of the Islamic faith on the southern Mindanao island.
Hapilon escaped and gunmen loyal to him swept through the city of 200,000 people, torching buildings and taking hostages. Ano said the gunmen were prepared to fight because they had been planning to unleash attacks during the holy month of Ramadan to capture the attention of the IS group.
The unrest has boosted fears that the violent ideology of the ISIS is gaining a foothold in the restive southern islands, where a Muslim separatist rebellion has raged for decades.
President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in the south through mid-July, but lawmakers on Tuesday asked for a public session of Congress to determine whether it is still necessary.
Duterte’s declaration unnerved Filipinos who lived through the rule of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who imposed martial law in 1972 and used it to hold power for more than a decade.
The army insists the drawn-out fight in Marawi is not a true sign of the militants’ strength because the military has held back to spare civilian lives.
Ano said the military, working house to house, had cleared 70 percent of the city as of Tuesday morning and the remaining militants were isolated.
Still, the fighters have turned out to be remarkably well-armed and resilient. Experts have warned that as ISIS is weakened in Syria and Iraq, battered by years of American-led attacks, Mindanao could become a focal point for regional fighters.
Three Malaysians, an Indonesian and possibly Arab extremists have been killed in the Marawi fighting, Ano said. He said Hapilon was still hiding somewhere in the city and that authorities were working to confirm whether another top militant had been killed.
At least 65 militants and 15 Philippine troops have been killed, Ano said. The bodies of 19 civilians have been recovered and local authorities have reported more civilian deaths still to be tallied.
The fighters’ support network in Marawi remains unclear, though the power of one militant group—the Mautes has grown in recent years. Led by members of the city’s Maute clan, the group has become increasingly active across Lanao del Sur province, where Marawi is located, and has been instrumental in the fighting this past week.