Fears for 2,000 people trapped in Philippine city battle

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Marawi (Philippines) (AFP) - Army helicopters fired rockets at Islamist militants in a southern Philippine city Monday, as fears grew for up to 2,000 people unable to escape a week of relentless fighting that has left women and children dead.

President Rodrigo Duterte imposed martial law across the southern third of the Philippines shortly after the fighting erupted, warning the gunmen were involved in an effort by the Islamic State group to set up a local caliphate.

But street-to-street battles and a military bombing campaign have failed to end the crisis in Marawi, one of the biggest Muslim cities in the mainly Catholic nation, and authorities expressed alarm about those trapped inside the militants' areas.

"They are texting us and calling us for help," Zia Alonto Adiong, spokesman for the provincial crisis management committee, told AFP, referring to the 2,000 people his office had recorded being unable to leave.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is trying to help those trapped, said people were dying from the extreme conditions and stray bullets.

"When our colleges speak to them on phone calls, we hear that the situation is very difficult. Food is running out, water is running out, they don't have electricity," Martin Thalmann, the deputy head of the ICRC's Philippine delegation who is in Marawi, told AFP.

"There is intense fighting with small arms. It is really a terrible situation for them... people have died because they were shot and there was no doctor to treat them."

Authorities said the gunmen had already murdered at least 19 civilians, including women and children, while 17 members of the security forces had died in the clashes and 61 militants were killed.

Eight bodies were found on Sunday morning dumped off a bridge on the outskirts of Marawi, which is normally a bustling city of 200,000 people known as a centre of Islamic culture and education.

Myrna Bandung, a Catholic woman, told reporters at a checkpoint on Monday as she accompanied one of those bodies out of the city that she had been with the eight when they were murdered.

"They did not kill me because I was able to recite a Muslim prayer. The others were not so lucky," a visibly shocked Bandung said.

Most of the city's residents had fled to nearby towns.

But adding to the fears for those who remained, the military announced on the weekend that it would intensify a bombing campaign on the areas being held by the militants.

An AFP reporter in Marawi witnessed helicopters flying low repeatedly on Monday afternoon and firing rockets on areas where the militants were believed to be hiding, with smoke up rising up from those locations afterwards.

Troops walked behind tanks as they went down seemingly deserted streets, occasionally launching a barrage of automatic rifle fire after being shot at by snipers.

- Raid backfires -

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

Hapilon, a senior member of the Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom gang, is on the US government's list of most-wanted terrorists.

The gunmen on Tuesday planted black IS flags, took a priest and up to 14 other people hostage from a church, and set fire to buildings. The fate of those hostages remained unknown.

Duterte and military chiefs have said most of the militants belong to the local Maute group, which has declared allegiance to IS and which the government estimates has about 260 armed followers.

But Malaysian, Indonesian, Singaporean and other foreign fighters had joined them, the military said.

A Muslim separatist rebellion in the southern Philippines has claimed more than 120,000 lives since the 1970s.

The main Muslim rebel groups have signed accords with the government aimed at forging a final peace, giving up their separatist ambitions in return for autonomy.

The Maute, the Abu Sayyaf and other hardline groups are not interested in negotiating and have in recent years looked to IS to help them.

Duterte said Saturday he was prepared to enforce martial law for as long as was necessary to end the terrorist threat.

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