MARAWI CITY (Philippines) • At the beginning of the battle that has raged for the past two weeks in Marawi at the southern end of the Philippines, dozens of Muslim militants stormed the city's prison, overwhelming guards and freeing all the prisoners.
Over the next few hours, fighters from the Maute group - which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - took control of most of the city.
They attacked the police station, stole weapons and ammunition, set up roadblocks and positioned snipers on buildings at key approaches.
The assault has already led to the death of almost 180 people and most of Marawi's population of about 200,000 have fled.
Major-General Carlito Galvez, head of the military command in Western Mindanao region, yesterday said as many as 200 fighters from the Maute group and others were still inside the town.
The fighters, he said, had made preparations in advance for a drawn-out stand-off. Days before seizing Marawi, they placed weapons and food in mosques, tunnels and basements.
"In houses we take over, we see .50 calibre, .30 calibre, and the ammunition are huge. And the Maute, even if they fight two months, they will not starve here," he told a news conference about 1km from the fighting. "If you look at it, there are underground tunnels and basements that even a 500-pounder cannot destroy."
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte yesterday offered large bounties for the arrest of the fighters' leaders - 10 million pesos (S$279,600) for Isnilon Hapilon, a long-time leader of Abu Sayyaf, a notorious militant group known for kidnapping. Hapilon was named ISIS leader in South-east Asia last year and is on the US government's list of most-wanted terrorists.
Five million pesos each was offered for the Maute brothers, Abdullah and Omar.
Mr Duterte, who declared martial law in the southern island group of Mindanao after the siege began, said on Saturday that Marawi would be fully liberated within three days.
But yesterday, officials were more circumspect on the timing. Senior officers said the main problem was that 500 to 600 civilians were still trapped in the town, and many were low on food and water.
A four-hour ceasefire to evacuate residents was marred by gunfire on Sunday, leaving hundreds of civilians who had hoped to flee the fighting stuck in their homes.
Military spokesman Restituto Padilla told reporters the area occupied by the militants had shrunk to less than 10 per cent and the army was pressing on to meet Mr Duterte's deadline. But it was not easy. "Complications have been coming out: the continued use of civilians, potential hostages who may still be in their hands, the use of places of worship... and other factors that complicate the battle because of its urban terrain," he said.
As the fighting rages on, the United States yesterday gave the Philippines hundreds of machine guns, pistols and grenade launchers, which a local commander said would be used in Marawi.
The new weapons, including machine guns capable of firing thousands of rounds a minute, were handed over at a ceremony in Manila that highlighted a decade-old American counterterrorism assistance programme to the Philippines.
A NEW ISIS BASE
The seizing of the city by Maute and its allies on the island of Mindanao is the biggest warning yet that ISIS is building a base in South-east Asia and bringing the brutal tactics seen in Iraq and Syria in recent years to the region.
Defence and other government officials from the region told Reuters evidence is mounting that this was a sophisticated plot to bring forces from different groups who support ISIS together to take control of Marawi.
Philippine officials said all four of the country's pro-ISIS groups sent fighters to Marawi with the intention of establishing the city as a South-east Asian "wilayat" - or governorate - for the radical group.
Defence officials said Hapilon brought 50 to 100 fighters to join Maute's 250 to 300 men, while two other groups, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Ansar Khilafah Philippines, together brought at least 40 fighters with them.
The presence of foreigners alongside locals in Marawi has particularly alarmed security officials. Intelligence sources say the fighters have included militants from Indonesia and Malaysia, and as far away as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Chechnya and Morocco.
For some time, governments in South-east Asia have been worried about what happens when battle-hardened ISIS fighters from their countries return home as the group loses ground in the Middle East. Now they have added concerns about the region becoming a magnet for foreign militants.
"If we do nothing, they get a foothold in this region," said Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein.
Mindanao - roiled for decades by Muslim separatists, communist rebels and warlords - was fertile ground for ISIS ideology to take root. This is the one region in this largely Catholic country to have a significant Muslim minority.
It is difficult for governments to prevent militants from getting to Mindanao from countries like Malaysia and Indonesia through waters that have often been lawless and plagued by pirates.
Officials in Indonesia have expressed fears that even if the Filipinos successfully take back Marawi, the threat will remain high. "We worry they will come over here," said one Indonesian counter-terrorism official, noting that Mindanao was not very far from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
To stem the movement of militants, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines last Saturday said they will launch joint maritime patrols from June 19 at their shared boundaries in the Sulu Sea. Singapore said it stands ready to take part in the patrols in any way needed.
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