Ceasefire hopes for civilians in war-torn Philippine city Marawi

Philippine marines walk next to an armoured vehicle after engaging militants in Marawi, on June 2, 2017.
Philippine marines walk next to an armoured vehicle after engaging militants in Marawi, on June 2, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

MARAWI (AFP) - Philippine authorities said on Sunday (June 4) they were trying to negotiate a ceasefire in a war-torn southern city to rescue up to 2,000 civilians trapped in areas held by Islamist militants for nearly two weeks.

Government forces have bombarded Marawi with air strikes and waged fierce street-to-street battles with hundreds of gunmen since they began a rampage through residential areas waving the black flags of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Authorities said on Sunday they had finally been able to negotiate a ceasefire with the militants to allow those trapped to be released, although continued fighting throughout the morning meant it was not put into place as hoped.

"There are 2,000 people who need immediate help (after) 13 days without food," Mr Zia Alonto Adiong, spokesman for the provincial crisis management committee, told AFP.

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"We do not know if the ceasefire has been breached," he said, adding that a sudden surge in fighting had hampered the rescue efforts.

Scores of people made a daring dash for safety on Saturday (June 3), including one of Marawi's most respected politicians who had hidden 71 Christians in his home and led 144 people through downtown streets strewn with rotting corpses.

 

The militants behind the violence in Marawi mostly belong to a local group called the Maute and the infamous Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom gang which had pledged allegiance to ISIS and rejected official peace talks.

Sunday's ceasefire was initially reached following a meeting last week between President Rodrigo Duterte and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the nation's biggest rebel organisation which offered to broker a halt in hostilities using contacts with the fighters in Marawi, Mr Adiong told DZBB radio.

Unarmed MILF rebels had a four-hour window until noon (0400 GMT) to take civilians to safety, government rescue coordinator Naguib Sinarimbo said.

But an AFP reporter said there was a sudden burst of gunfire and an explosion as rescue teams were entering the city.

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

The MILF has signed accords with the government aimed at forging lasting peace, giving up their separatist ambitions in return for autonomy.

But small hardline groups, including the Maute and Abu Sayyaf, have refused to negotiate and sought to unite behind ISIS.

The clashes in Marawi erupted when security forces raided a house to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, a veteran Filipino militant regarded as ISIS's leader in the Philippines. He is on the US government's list of most-wanted terrorists.

Authorities said they were taken by surprise when many gunmen emerged to protect Hapilon and then went on a rampage through Marawi, which has a population of 200,000.

Shortly after the violence erupted Mr Duterte imposed martial law across the southern region of Mindanao, home to 20 million people, to quell what he said was an ISIS bid to establish a base in the mainly Catholic Philippines.