Philippine forces and Islamic terrorists have been battling for three days for the control of the city of Marawai. Churchgoers were caught in the middle.
Backed by tanks and helicopters, Philippine government forces launched “precision attacks” Thursday to clear terrorists linked to the Islamic State (ISIS) terror group from the southern city of Marawi, under siege since a failed raid to capture a militant on the US list of most-wanted terrorists.
Around 20 people have died in the fighting, including 13 terrorists and five soldiers.
During the battles, ISIS terrorists stormed a cathedral, taking a Catholic priest and more than a dozen churchgoers hostage, as it attempted to seize control of the city.
The terrorists seized Rev. Chito Suganob and members of his congregation amid a raging battle with government troops. Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, said the terrorists threatened to murder the hostages if the government did not recall the “forces unleashed against them.”
Suganob urged Filipinos to pray for the hostages’ safe return.
Filipino government officials said the situation was under control, but Marawi residents, who fled the area, gave conflicting accounts, insisting the terrorists had the upper hand.
The man at the center of the Marawi violence is Isnilon Hapilon, an Arabic-speaking Islamic preacher known for his commando assault expertise. He is at the nexus of several terror groups trying to merge into a more powerful force.
Hapilon, who is a commander of the Abu Sayyaf terror group, pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2014. He also heads an alliance that includes at least 10 smaller terror groups, including the Maute, which have a heavy presence in Marawi and were instrumental in fighting off government forces in this week’s battles.
Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte instituted martial law in the country’s south due to the terrorists’ siege of Marawi and cut short a trip to Russia to deal with the crisis.
“To my countrymen who have experienced martial law, it would not be any different from what President Marcos did. I’d be harsh,” Duterte said in a video message recorded on his return flight to the Philippines, referring to the rule of 1970s Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
“To my countrymen, do not be too scared,” he said. “I’m going home. I will deal with the problem once I arrive.”
On Thursday, the US condemned the ISIS violence.
The White House stated that, “cowardly terrorists killed Philippine law enforcement officials and endangered the lives of innocent citizens.”
It said the United States will provide “support and assistance to Philippine counterterrorism efforts.” The statement from the press secretary says the United States is a “proud ally of the Philippines.”
Marawi is a city of some 200,000 people.
By: World Israel News and agencies.