Militants in a southern Philippine city are still holding hostages and defying government forces as President Duterte says local militant groups are uniting behind Daesh and becoming a major security threat.

A Philippine soldier with an evacuated child in Marawi City, Philippines on May 30, 2017.
A Philippine soldier with an evacuated child in Marawi City, Philippines on May 30, 2017. (TRT World and Agencies)

A week-long assault by rebels in the southern Philippine city of Marawi has left dozens dead as the military fights to retake the city.

The pro-Daesh Maute group is clinging on to the heart of Marawi City despite a ground assault and days of air strikes, defying expectations of a swift end to the occupation.

TRT World's Sally Ayhan reports.

Death toll rising

Philippine security forces say they have killed 89 militants since gunmen stormed the city on Mindanao island last week.

The clashes erupted on May 23 when gunmen waving the black flags of Daesh rampaged through the mostly Muslim-populated city in response to an effort by security forces to arrest militant leader Isnilon Hapilon, a Filipino on the US government's list of most-wanted terrorists.

Hapilon escaped but he was still believed to be in Marawi,

The troops recaptured most of the city, but many residents remain trapped in the section the gunmen still control.

"That 10 percent is most likely the area that is heavily guarded and defended by any armed men if they are protecting any individual of high value," military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla said.

The military on Wednesday deployed SF-260 close air support planes for the first time to back attack helicopters and ground troops looking to box rebels into a downtown area.

Twenty-one security forces and 19 civilians have died in the clashes, and 90,000 people have been forced to flee their homes.

It is not known how many militants remain holed up in the city.

Stolen weapons

Padilla said the Maute had kept up the fight with rifles and ammunition stolen from a police station, a prison, and an armoured police vehicle.

"They were able to get an armoured vehicle of the police," Padilla added. "Inside, there is a supply of bullets."

The militants freed jailed comrades to join the battle and opted for urban warfare because arms were available in the city and homes and shops provided ample supplies of food, the spokesman said.

The military has from the outset insisted it has control of the situation. But the slow pace of efforts to retake the city has prompted questions about its strategy.

Social media images of smiling fighters with assault rifles posing on an armoured, US-made police combat vehicles, dressed in black and wearing headbands typical of Daesh, have added to the perception that driving Maute from Marawi City will not be easy.

Rise in militancy

The Philippine government has been alarmed by the strength of the Maute. Intelligence reports suggest it has teamed up with other extremist groups and has recruited foreign fighters.

President Rodrigo Duterte has declared martial law on Mindanao island where Marawi is located, in a move to crush a movement his government is now calling a Daesh invasion.

"What's happening in Mindanao is no longer a rebellion of Filipino citizens," Solicitor General Jose Calida told reporters.

"It has transmogrified into invasion by foreign terrorists, who heeded the call of the ISIS [Daesh] to go to the Philippines if they find difficulty in going to Iraq and Syria."

The military believes that Maute and its associates staged the Marawi takeover to try to win Daesh's endorsement as an affiliate in Southeast Asia.

The high and rising death toll is a sign extremists in the southern Philippines are now better organised and funded, security experts say, pointing to Maute's rapid rise from obscurity.

In back-channel talks with the militants, the remaining fighters had been urged to give up, Padilla said.

"We are appealing to these armed men to come to their senses, lay down their weapons and surrender."

However, President Duterte on Wednesday said he would not talk to the rebels and said he was determined to keep Daesh out of the country.

"I will not talk to the terrorists," the Philippine president said.

The government said one Mindanao separatist group, which had struck a yet-to-be-implemented peace deal with it, had agreed to help the military get civilians, dead or alive, out of Marawi.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has accepted an offer from Duterte to work with the government to stop the spread of radicalism in the southern Philippines.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies