MARAWI, (Philippines): Militants who have occupied much of Marawi City over the past week were planning violent attacks during the holy month of Ramadan to earn recognition as a regional branch of the Islamic State group, 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 Año 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,” Año 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 the Islamic State group as its leader in the Philippines.
Hapilon escaped and gunmen loyal to him besieged this mostly Muslim city of 200,000 people, torching buildings and taking hostages. Año said the gunmen were prepared to fight because of their Ramadan attack plot.
The unrest has boosted fears that the Islamic State group’s violent ideology is gaining a foothold in this country’s 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 martial law is still necessary.
The Army insists the drawn-out fight in Marawi is not a true sign of the militants’ strength, and that the military has held back to spare civilians’ lives.
As of Tuesday morning, Año said the military, working house-by-house, had cleared 70 percent of the city and the remaining militants were isolated.
Still, the fighters have turned out to be remarkably well-armed and resilient.
In recent years, small militant groups in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia have begun unifying under the banner of the Islamic State group. Jose Calida, the top Philippine prosecutor, said last week that the violence on the large southern island of Mindanao “is no longer a rebellion of Filipino citizens.”
Three Malaysians, an Indonesian and possibly Arab extremists have been killed in the Marawi fighting, Año said, citing the latest intelligence on the matter. He said Hapilon was still hiding somewhere in the city and that authorities were working to confirm another top militant had been killed.
At least 65 militants have been killed and 15 Philippine troops, Año said. The bodies of 19 civilians have been recovered and local authorities have reported more civilian deaths still to be tallied.
Año, the military chief, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the extremists had plotted to set Marawi ablaze entirely to project IS’s influence. The extremists wanted to kill Christians in nearby Iligan city on Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, to mimic the violence seen by the world in Syria and Iraq, Año said.
Hapilon is an Islamic preacher and former commander of the Abu Sayyaf militant group who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in 2014. He now heads an alliance of at least 10 smaller militant groups, including the Maute.