MANILA • Children and hostages are being forced to fight alongside militants waging a seven-week battle for a Philippine city, the country's military said yesterday.
Militants seized Marawi, considered the Muslim capital of the largely Catholic Philippines, on May 23 in a bid to create a province for the terror group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and over 100 remain holed up in the city despite intense military efforts to oust them.
Some of the extremists are teenagers who may have been recruited and trained to use guns when they were still children, said Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, a military spokesman, reported Agence France-Presse.
"We continuously get disturbing narratives from (escaped residents) that children as well as hostages are being employed in the firefight," Gen Padilla told reporters in Manila.
Casualties among children and civilians forced to take up arms could not be ruled out, he said.
"As disturbing as it is, our troops are doing their best to avoid any casualty among these children that are being employed," he said. "But in the event... they bear arms and are involved in the fighting, there is nothing much that we can do. Similarly to the hostages who are being forced."
Shortly after seizing Marawi, the militants took at least a dozen hostages, including a Catholic priest. Some of the estimated 300 other civilians still trapped in the area may have also been taken captive, said Gen Padilla.
The military earlier said civilians had been forced to help the gunmen by carrying supplies and ammunition, bearing their wounded and even helping them loot the city.
More than 500 people have been killed in the fighting, including 89 soldiers and police, 39 civilians and 379 militants, according to figures released by the government yesterday.
Nearly 400,000 civilians have fled their homes.
Daily air strikes and artillery barrages against militant snipers who control tall buildings have left Marawi's central business district a ghost town.
Meanwhile, Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters in Kuala Lumpur yesterday that Malaysia and other countries in South-east Asia need to monitor the movement of foreign ISIS fighters fleeing the Middle East, with intelligence reports indicating that ISIS may be planning to set up a terror base in the region.