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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Marawi under siege

Amber Gonzales

Jul. 4, 2017

As the battle against the Islamic State Militants progresses in the Middle East, the group has gained a foothold in South East Asia. It has been a month since fighting broke out between Philippine forces and Islamist militants in Marawi City on Mindanao Island. NHK World's Amber Gonzales covered the situation on the island.

Black smoke can be seen billowing over Marawi. The sound of gunfire echoes throughout the city.

Mobilizing fighter jets and tanks, the government forces are making a desperate effort to bring the insurgents under control.

The militants are putting up fierce resistance. They are hoisting Islamic State flags across town in a show of defiance.

Most of Marawi's 200-thousand residents have fled to neighboring towns, where they live in a harsh environment.

They eat and sleep on sheets laid on the concrete. The sanitary conditions are deplorable.

In a makeshift clinic next to the shelter, many young children are on IV drips. With temperatures topping 30 degrees Celsius day after day, children and elderly people are suffering from dehydration. Some have died.

"If we keep living like this, my children will get sick. I'm really tired of this," says one person there.

NHK gained access to a video seized by government forces from one of the militants' hideouts.

The footage is believed to have been shot by the Maute armed group in late May, just before the fighting began. It shows leaders discussing plans to take control of Marawi.

Abdullah Maute, the elder of the Maute brothers, founded the group.

The government also recognized Isnilon Hapilon, a senior leader of the Philippines' Islamic extremist group, Abu Sayyaf.

Hapilon is on the United States' most wanted list, with a price of 5 million dollars on his head. Hapilon has been named by the Islamic State group as a leader in the Philippines.

Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group were thought to be acting separately, but the video reveals that they are now working together to build an Islamic State base in Marawi.

The groups are increasing their organizational effectiveness. They are now attracting militants not only from Indonesia and other neighboring countries, but also from the Middle East.

President Rodrigo Duterte is determined to bring the militants under control.

"Maute is the name of aggravation here," he said. "Also already infiltrated by ISIS. I will do it on my own to preserve my nation."

The President emphasized his commitment to fighting the militants. But the battle to contain them remains uncertain.

Amber Gonzales spoke with Newsroom Tokyo's Aki Shibuya and Aiko Doden about the situation.

Shibuya: What are the latest developments in the siege of Marawi?

Gonzales: The Philippine government is still pushing to claim the whole of Marawi from the Maute armed group. Out of 96 areas, 4 of them remain as terrorist strongholds.

The conflict has been going on for more than a month now, and it is hard for the government troops to win the battle easily because they operate around an urban terrain.

There are booby traps or improvised explosives scattered in the area, and mosques or prayer sites are used by the militants as sniper nests.

In their most recent update, the Armed Forces of the Philippines reported that they have received distressed calls from some Maute members, expressing their want to surrender. They see this as a positive indication that the crisis can be suppressed soon.

But as long as the battle goes on, thousands of families will remain in crowded evacuation centers, and wait for peace to come around again.

Doden: Why did the Islamic State militants choose Mindanao as their stronghold in the Philippines?

Gonzales: Well, the southern part of the Philippines, or the island of Mindanao, is home to 94 percent of the Islamic population in the country.

Most strongholds of the Islamic extremists have been historically placed in Mindanao. The Abu Sayyaf group for instance was established in Mindanao in the 90’s, initially fighting for an independent Islamic nation, and they later carried out bombings and a series of kidnappings.

For these reasons, Mindanao is seen by the Islamic State militants as a vulnerable area and the ideal place for the goal of establishing a caliphate.

Doden: We know President Duterte is from Mindanao, but how will this situation in Marawi affect his administration?

Gonzales: His critics would say that this is a big blow for the one-year-old administration of Duterte, especially if we take into consideration the fact the President did most of his military visits in the said island.

He even flies to and from Davao, his hometown, almost every week. It will be a very challenging month for his administration, not just because of the Marawi crisis, but also because of the controversial Martial Law declaration in Mindanao, which he says, could be expanded to neighboring islands in case the crisis spills over. Earlier, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the said declaration, making martial law constitutional.

Duterte’s State of the Nation Address is also coming up in a few weeks, and it would be a very critical day for his administration if the Marawi siege continues until then.