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Mindanao: Air raids target fighters holed up in Marawi

شعار Al Jazeera Al Jazeera 25/05/2017
Black smoke is seen in the air while government troops position themselves during an assault against the fighters [Reuters] © Provided by Al Jazeera Black smoke is seen in the air while government troops position themselves during an assault against the fighters [Reuters]

The Philippine army on Thursday launched air raids against ISIL-linked fighters who are hiding in a southern city they attacked earlier this week, sending thousands of people fleeing and prompting President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law in the region.

The "surgical air strikes" were aimed to flush out up to 40 fighters believed to be hiding in Marawi City, on the southern island of Mindanao, according to military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jo-ar Herrera.

Most of Marawi's 200,000 residents had fled the city, which is about 800 kilometres south of the capital, Manila, but Herrera said those who remained had been warned to get out of the areas where there was bombing and fighting.

"We have identified targets that we need to clear," he said. "We need to neutralise the remnants of the local terrorist groups."

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The violence erupted on Tuesday after the army raided the hideout of Isnilon Hapilon, a commander of the Abu Sayyaf group, which has pledged allegiance to ISIL (also known as ISIS). Abu Sayyaf fighters called for reinforcements from an allied group, the Maute, and dozens of gunmen managed to enter Marawi City and sweep through its streets.

The fighters reportedly burned a Catholic church, the city jail, and two schools, as well as occupied the main streets and two bridges leading to Marawi City.

Religious leaders have also accused the rebels of taking a Catholic priest and his worshippers hostage and using them as human shields.

At least 21 people are believed to have died in three days of fighting.

On Thursday, Duterte submitted to Congress the proclamation of martial law for review as required by the constitution. The House of Representatives and the Senate were scheduled to convene on Monday to assess the declaration.

Majul Gandamra, the mayor of Marawi City, said many establishments were closed, making it difficult for those who are still in the municipality to purchase supplies.

"It's getting difficult for people to get their basic needs, like water and food," Gandamra told a Manila radio station.

"Our top priority is to give food, water and temporary shelter to residents," he added. "We are looking for an evacuation centre where there is no presence of the ISIL-related militants."

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Soldiers, supported by tanks, moved through streets and houses as they scoured three villages in the area where the gunmen were reported to be moving around.

Checkpoints were established at entry and exit points of Marawi City, while helicopters hovered over the city and more soldiers arrived in trucks to secure the municipality.

The military has placed units in different parts of Mindanao under high alert, including the city of Davao, Duterte's home town, where local authorities fear the fighters could attempt to stage retaliatory attacks.

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