Militants linked to Islamic State have taken control of several neighbourhoods in the southern Philippine city of Marawi, with army artillery and aerial attacks unable to completely dislodge them after six days.
At least 61 militants and 17 security forces have been killed, according to the armed forces. 19 civilians have died. Tens of thousands of people have fled the city of 200,000.
Acting on intelligence, security forces tried to capture Isnilon Hapilon, an Islamist militant endorsed by IS as their point-man for south-east Asia, where militants have attempted to establish a presence outside the Middle East.
Hapilon is on the FBI’s most wanted list, with a $5m reward.
Following the botched raid on May 23, militants protecting Hapilon went on a rampage, seizing a hospital, school and cathedral. They overran a jail and released scores of inmates.
President Rodrigo Duterte has declared martial law across Mindanao, a poverty-stricken province of 22 million that has a deep history of armed insurrection.
The militants are from a little-know group called the Maute, named after two brothers, Omar and Abdullah Maute.
Hapilon previously led another radical faction, the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf, known for bombings and beheadings of hostages as well as links to the group that carried out the 2002 Bali bombings in Indonesia.
The Philippines military says Hapilon has now joined the Maute, which previously ran as a criminal organisation but has grown increasingly ideological in its objectives, according to analysts.
The Maute was blamed for last year’s bombing in the president’s home city, Davao, which killed 14 people. And IS propaganda arm, Amaq news agency last week claimed responsibility for the Marawi assault.
Sidney Jones, the Jakarta-based director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, says the fighting represents a coalition of various radical Islamist factions in Mindanao that have a history of armed violence over land, resources and control.
Now, she says, they have formed a coalition against a common enemy.
“Duterte and his government have failed to appreciate that a major change has taken place in Mindanao, and these men aren’t motivated just by clan politics or money. The leaders may have been ‘bandits’ in the past, but now, they’re ideologues,” she said.
“They have been convinced by IS that the answer to Mindanao’s problems is Islamic law,” she added.
In an October report, Jones predicted the current tumult. Facing losses in Syria and Iraq, IS have increasingly looked to the Philippines to establish a province or “wilayat” in the region, the report said.
Support for IS in Mindanao “has facilitated cooperation across clan and ethnic lines, widened the extremist recruitment pool to include computer-savvy university students and opened new international communication and possibly funding channels,” it said.
Many Muslims in the Philippines live in Mindanao, a semi-autonomous province, and Marawi is the most populated city in the self-governing region.
Duterte, the former mayor from Davao, another city in Mindanao, has seen his year-long presidency characterised by bloodshed, with a “war on drugs” that has left thousands of alleged drug addicts and suspected dealers dead. He has been condemned internationally for supporting vigilantism.
The president has publicly encouraged civilians to kill addicts and said he will not prosecute police for extrajudicial executions.
He has been equally outspoken during the Marawi clashes, reassuring soldiers that he will protect them if they commit abuses during the conflict, including rape.
“If you go down, I go down. But for this martial law and the consequences of martial law and the ramifications of martial law, I and I alone would be responsible, just do your job I will take care of the rest,” Duterte said on Friday, according to a president’s office transcript.
“I’ll imprison you myself,” he said, referring to any soldiers who commit violations, then he joked: “If you had raped three, I will admit it, that’s on me.”
On May 28, Duterte appealed to other rebel groups in Mindanao, including two Muslim separatist factions and Maoist-led rebels, to join the fight against the Maute, promising them pay and perks, including housing.
There was no immediate reaction from the three groups.