MARAWI CITY • More than 160 civilians walked out of the besieged Philippines city of Marawi just after dawn yesterday, deceiving Islamist fighters they encountered by hiding the identity of the many Christians among them.
The audacious exodus came after text-message warnings that a major assault by Philippine aircraft and ground troops was imminent in the centre of the southern city, where some 250 militants have dug in and more than 2,000 civilians remain trapped.
"We saved ourselves," said traditional clan leader Norodin Alonto Lucman, a well-known former politician who sheltered 71 people, including more than 50 Christians, in his home during the battle that erupted on May 23 in the town of over 200,000 residents on the southern island of Mindanao.
"There's this plan to bomb the whole city if ISIS doesn't agree to the demands of the government," he said, referring to local and foreign fighters who have sworn allegiance to the ultra-radical Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
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Many evacuees said they had received text messages warning of a bombing campaign. "We had a tip from the general commander that we should go out," said Ms Leny Paccon, who gave refuge to 54 people in her home, including 44 Christians. "When I got the text, immediately we left."
By then, Mr Lucman and his guests had begun their escape march from another area, holding white flags. "As we walked, others joined us," he told reporters. "We had to pass through a lot of snipers."
Some of the civilians were stopped and asked if there were any Christians among them, said construction worker Jaime Daligdig, a Christian. "We shouted 'Allahu Akbar'," he told Reuters, adding that they were allowed to pass after the Muslim rallying cry.
Those who fled included teachers from Dansalan College, a Protestant school torched on the first day of the battle.
Mr Lucman and Ms Paccon said militants had knocked on their doors while they sheltered the terrified Christians. They shooed them away, saying there were women and children inside.
Adding to the anxiety, both said they were within 100m of militant command posts.
Although the Philippine military knew civilians remained in their homes, ordnance exploded nearby repeatedly over the past week.