17 bodies recovered from Marawi rubble, as civilian death toll seen rising 'significantly'

Black smoke billows from burning houses after an aerial bombing by the Philippine Air Force on militant Islamist positions in Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao, on June 27, 2017.
Black smoke billows from burning houses after an aerial bombing by the Philippine Air Force on militant Islamist positions in Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao, on June 27, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

MANILA - Seventeen bodies of civilians, five of them with heads severed, were recovered inside a combat zone in the war-torn southern city of Marawi, security officials reported on Wednesday (June 28).

A short message sent to reporters by the military's Task Force Marawi said all were "victims" of Muslim militants still holed up and fighting at the city's now bombed-out commercial district.

It was not clear yet whether all were executed, or whether some were just caught in the crossfire, artillery barrages and bombing runs, or died of hunger and dehydration.

The military had said it was likely that large numbers of civilians had already been killed due to "atrocities" by the militants allied with the ultra-radical Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

"The number you have right now is 27. (It) may increase significantly once we are able to validate all this information," Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, the military spokesman, said at a news briefing, referring to accounts by fleeing civilians of dozens of bodies scattered across districts where fighting between government troops and the militants has been raging for five weeks.

He blamed those deaths on "atrocities committed by the terrorists".

The military reported on Tuesday (June 27) that civilians held as hostages were being forced to convert to Islam, loot homes, take up arms against government troops, carry wounded fighters and serve as sex slaves.

The military has been reluctant to discuss the possibility that the real impact of the fighting on civilians could be far more severe than has been reported. It has played down the impact of daily air strikes and mortar assaults aimed at rebel sniper positions, which have reduced areas of the lakeside town to rubble and alarmed people stuck there, some of whom have said the shelling was a bigger threat than the militants.

Disaster officials are keen to start dangerous missions to recover what they believe are large numbers of bodies in the streets near the conflict zone.

The battle for Marawi entered its 36th day on Wednesday (June 28), with intense gunfights and bombing in the heart of the town, and black-clad fighters seen from afar running between buildings as explosions rang out.

Marawi is the only city in the Christian-majority Philippines that the government has decreed to be "Islamic", because of its large population of Muslims. The rebels' hold on it, while incurring the full force of a military for years trained by its United States counterparts, has much of the region on edge, concerned that ISIS' influence may run deeper than thought.

Those fears are also being felt in Malaysia and Indonesia, whose nationals are among the Maute group rebels fighting in Marawi, suggesting the group may have built a cross-border network that has gone largely undetected.

President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday (June 27) said that from the outset, he was prepared for a long fight with a well-armed Maute motivated only by murder and destruction.

"It seems to be limitless supply. They were able to stockpile their arms," he said. "Some of those who travelled to the Middle East got contaminated, brought the ideology back home and promised to declare war against humanity."

Some 71 security forces and 299 militants have since been killed and 246,000 people displaced in the conflict, which erupted after a failed May 23 attempt to arrest a Filipino militant commander backed by the ISIS leadership.