Seventeen bodies, five of them with heads severed, were recovered yesterday inside a combat zone in war-torn Marawi City, as officials warned that the death toll among civilians caught in weeks- long clashes between security forces and Muslim militants could rise dramatically.
Brigadier-General Rolando Bautista, head of Joint Task Force Marawi, said in a statement that all 17 were civilians executed by the militants.
Lieutenant-Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera, spokesman for the task force, said most of the bodies were decomposed and mangled.
"The bodies are all in an advanced state of decomposition, and with parts mixed up, that we're not even sure we actually have 17. In some, only the bones remained. But they were all killed by Maute," he said, referring to the group that seized parts of Marawi on May 23 in a bid to turn it into a "province" of the ultra-radical Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) .
The battle for Marawi entered its 36th day yesterday, with intense gunfights and bombing in the heart of town. Black-clad fighters were seen from afar running between buildings as explosions rang out.
Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, the military spokesman, said it was likely that large numbers of civilians had already been killed.
"The numbers... may increase significantly once we are able to validate all this information," he said at a news briefing, citing 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 militants have been reported to be executing civilians since the early days of the fighting.
On May 28, the bodies of eight men, all shot in the head, were found in a shallow ditch. They were executed by militants who caught them as they were fleeing Marawi. On June 13, militants were reported to have gunned down five men hiding inside a house with 13 others.
Videos posted on the chat app Telegram by ISIS' Amaq news agency showed the militants beheading a hostage and a police officer, and executing six other men with shots to the head.
President Rodrigo Duterte, meanwhile, said in a speech yesterday that it could not be helped that there would be civilian casualties in Marawi. "We don't mean to see civilians dying. But a bullet does not discriminate… (I told my soldiers), 'Do not hesitate to kill just because there are civilians there.'
"It is the duty of civilians to flee... It's really a war," he said.
The military has been reluctant to discuss the possibility that the real impact of the fighting on civilians could be far more severe than 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.