After more than two weeks of bloodshed, brutality and the creeping danger of starvation, Marawi remains a city under siege. Philippine authorities are reckoning with a mounting death toll — which by many media counts is more than 170 people — as well as the looming threat that the siege might become a bloody stalemate.
The alliance of ISIS-linked militant groups that seized parts of Marawi on May 23 continues to exercise control over the urban center — or about 10 percent of the city, military Chief of Staff Gen. Eduardo Ano tells The Associated Press. And he says the militants had long prepared for this fight by stockpiling supplies and weapons in mosques, schools and other civilian sites, as well as in a network of tunnels.
“There are underground tunnels and basements that even a 500-pounder [bomb] cannot destroy,” another general, Carlito Galvez, said at a news conference Monday. “Even if they fight two months, they will not starve here.”
Starvation poses an increasingly desperate threat to civilians, however.
A four-hour cease-fire negotiated between the Philippines and the cluster of extremists led by the Maute Group gave way to gunfire after just one hour on Sunday. The breaking of that truce, which was intended to allow civilians to escape, has left up to 2,000 bystanders still stranded there, according to the BBC.
The British news service details the dire situation that confronts those who remain in Marawi, an overwhelmingly Muslim city in a majority-Christian country:
“[One Christian mother] described how they hid with 70 other Christians in a basement, and how stressed everyone became when the children cried, for fear they would be given away to the gunmen outside.
“Another mother, a Muslim, said she had to dissuade the militants from taking her 14-year-old son to fight.”
The BBC reports that the 71 Christians, who were hidden and protected by a community leader, later escaped to safety only by crossing a bridge racked by gunfire between militants and government forces.
Others have not managed such an escape.
A Catholic priest was taken hostage with roughly a dozen members of his church near the start of the occupation. “The priest was last seen pleading for their lives in a video posted last week,” Michael Sullivan reports for NPR’s Newscast unit.
He notes that footage of militants smashing Christian iconography has been circulating online, as well — prompting government officials to ask social media outlets to remove posts of the video.
“The military says it’s worried the videos may be an attempt to fan religious hatred and turn the conflict into a religious war,” Sullivan says. “Padilla also asked citizens not to share the video online.”
There is another video Philippine authorities have wanted the world to see, though.
On Wednesday, The Associated Press posted footage it says was obtained from the Philippine military and that appears to depict Islamist fighters, including Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, planning their attack on Marawi. Officials say the video was on a cell phone picked up by government troops.
The wire service describes the “audacious plot sketched in chilling detail”:
“In the video clip obtained by the AP, which runs for just over two minutes, a long-haired man identified by the military as Abdullah Maute addresses other militant leaders gathered around a white plastic table.
“Pointing to a crude sketch of Marawi’s main streets and speaking in Tagalog and Marawi’s Maranao dialect, he declares, ‘We’ll take this first and then here.’
” ‘Or,’ he says, ‘we can go here first. We seal this off so you’ll have a passageway. But we need to capture a highway so the people will get scared.’ Another militant can be seen videotaping the clandestine meeting.”
The footage appears to confirm the Philippine claim that its botched raid to capture Hapilon, which sparked the violence, in fact interrupted a much larger plot the militants intended to enact just days later.
Since that operation late last month, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has declared martial law on the whole island where Marawi is, aiming to wrest momentum from the cluster of groups that have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. But efforts to reclaim the city have been dogged by the military’s own missteps and by an extremist force that dwarfed initial expectations.
Government officials say the militant groups count foreign jihadis among their number — including fighters from as far away as Saudi Arabia and Chechnya.
“Had the assault not been pre-empted,” the AP reports, paraphrasing Philippine officials, “the militants likely would have seized more territory and inflicted far more damage.”
The footage also appears to confirm something else: that from the start, the militant groups occupying Marawi had long been preparing for a protracted fight.