The Philippines deploys commandoes, helicopters to retake city from Islamic State-linked terror group

MARAWI CITY, Philippines, May 25 (Reuters) - The Philippines mobilized attack helicopters and special forces to drive Islamic State-linked rebels out of a besieged southern city on Thursday, with six soldiers killed in street combat amid heavy resistance.

Ground troops hid behind walls and armored vehicles and exchanged volleys of gunfire with Maute group fighters, shooting into elevated positions occupied by militants who have held Marawi City on Mindanao island for two days.

RELATED: A look at Manila's police

19 PHOTOS
Manila's police
See Gallery
Manila's police
Bicycle cabs are parked in front of a police station in Tondo city, metro Manila, Philippines June 9, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco 
People queue as they are interviewed by town volunteers while members of the Philippine National Police stand guard during the "Rid the streets Of Drinkers and Youth" operation in Las Pinas city, metro Manila, Philippines June 1, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco 
Members of the Philippine National Police Special Reactions Unit aims their pistols at a target range during an agility test inside a police station in metro Manila, Philippines May 21, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco 
Members of the Philippine National Police inspect documents at a checkpoint on a main street of Tondo city, metro Manila, Philippines June 10, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco 
Members of the Philippine National Police Special Reaction Unit gather as part of a police visibility operation along a main road in Metro Manila, Philippines June 4, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco 
A member of the Philippine National Police uses a megaphone to advise residents of their operation, "Rid the Streets of Drinkers and Youth" during a foot patrol along a main street of Las Pinas city, south of Manila, Philippines June 10, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco 
Members of the Philippine National Police stand at attention before operation "Rid the Streets Of Drinkers and Youth" in Las Pinas city, metro Manila, Philippines June 1, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco 
A member of the Philippine National Police supervises detained men doing push-ups part of the "Rid the Streets of Drinkers and Youth" operation in Las Pinas city, metro Manila, Philippines June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco 
A member of the Philippine National Police stands guard as he detains people as part of the "Rid the Streets Of Drinkers and Youth" operation on a main road in Las Pinas city, metro Manila, Philippines June 1, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco 
Youths cover their faces at a police station during the "Rid the Streets of Drinkers and Youth" operation in Las Pinas city, metro Manila, Philippines June 1, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco 
A agent of the National Bureau of Investigation searches for evidence during a raid at the home of a police officer and member of the drugs unit, in metro Manila, Philippines May 25, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco 
A member of the National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO) drug unit covers his face as he is detained for allegedly reselling seized drugs in metro Manila, Philippines May 25, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco 
A bag of a methamphetamine, known as shabu, is shown by a National Bureau of Investigation agent after a raid on the home of a police officer and member of the anti-drugs unit in metro Manila, Philippines May 25, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco 
Members of the National Bureau of Investigation count cash found in the home of a police officer and member of the drugs unit, during a raid in metro Manila, Philippines May 25, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco 
A National Bureau of Investigation agent uses a metal grinder to open a vault that contained drugs and around 7 million pesos in cash during a raid at the home of a police officer and member of the drugs unit in metro Manila, Philippines May 25, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco 
An agent of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency stands guard in front of chemicals used in the productions of methamphetamine hydrochloride, or Shabu, during the destructions of chemicals and other evidence in Valenzuela city, north of Manila, Philippines May 24, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco 
Philippine National Police Scene of the Crime Operations officers inspect 10 kilograms of methamphetamine, known as Shabu, worth around 50 million pesos, found in an abandoned vehicle on a bridge in metro Manila, Philippines June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco 
Laboratory equipment used in the productions of methamphetamine hydrochloride or Shabu is seen during a Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency destruction of chemicals and other evidence in Valenzuela city, north of Manila, Philippines May 24, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco 
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Helicopters circled the city, peppering Maute positions with machine gun fire to try to force them from a bridge vital to retaking Marawi, a mainly Muslim city of 200,000 where fighters had torched and seized a school, a jail and a cathedral, and took more than a dozen hostages.

"Our troops are doing deliberate operations in areas we believe are still occupied or infested with the terrorist presence," said the head of the task force, Brigadier General Rolly Bautista.

SEE ALSO: Pentagon officials mad with Trump's mention of US intel to Philippine President Duterte

The battles with the Maute group, which has pledged allegiance to Islamic State, started on Tuesday during a failed raid by security forces on one of the group's hideouts that spiraled into chaos.

Eighteen rebels were killed on Thursday, the army said.

The turmoil was the final straw for President Rodrigo Duterte, who on Tuesday delivered on his longstanding threat to impose martial law on Mindanao, the country's second-largest island, to stop the spread of radical Islam.

"If there's an open defiance you will die," he said on Wednesday. "And if it means many people dying, so be it."

Islamic State claimed responsibility late on Wednesday for Maute's activities via its Amaq news agency.

At least 46 people - 15 security forces and 31 rebels - have been killed and religious leaders say militants were using Christians taken hostage during the fighting as human shields. The status of those hostages was not known.

RELATED: Interesting facts about Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte

15 PHOTOS
Everything you didn't know about Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte
See Gallery
Everything you didn't know about Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte

Duterte was born on March 28, 1945 in Maasin, Southern Leyte, Philippines.

(PHILIPPINES-DAVAO/MODEL REUTERS/Renato Lumawag)

Duterte became the mayor of Davao City in 1988, where he earned the nickname “The Punisher.” He served as mayor for 20 years, non-consecutively.

(PHILIPPINES-DAVAO/MODEL REUTERS/Renato Lumawag)

Duterte comes from a family of politicians. His father, Vicente Duterte, was the governor of unified Davao and a member of President Ferdinand Marcos' cabinet. His daughter, Sara Duterte, is currently the mayor of Davao City.

(REUTERS/Erik De Castro)

Rodrigo Duterte was elected the 16th president of the Philippines in May 2016.

(REUTERS/Czar Dancel)

Duterte once compared himself to Adolf Hitler, saying he would kill millions of drug addicts.

(REUTERS/Ezra Acayan)

Duterte has led a violent anti-drug crackdown, and more than 7,000 have reportedly been killed since he has taken office. 

(Photo credit should read NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Duterte called President Barack Obama a “son of a wh**e.” He made the comments after Obama brought up concerns about human rights violations in 2016. Duterte later apologized for the comment.

(Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Weeks before being sworn in as president, Duterte fueled an already hostile environment for journalists when he said, "Just because you're a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you're a son of a b****." 

(REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco)

In 2015, Duterte vowed to execute 100,000 criminals and dump their bodies into Manila Bay. 

(REUTERS/Czar Dancel)

Duterte cursed Pope Francis over traffic that was generated by his visit. 

"We were affected by the traffic," Duterte said. "It took us five hours. I asked why, they said it was closed. I asked who is coming. They answered, the Pope. I wanted to call him: 'Pope, son of a wh**e, go home. Do not visit us again'."

He later apologized. 

(PHILIPPINES - Tags: RELIGION SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Duterte came under fire in April 2016 after he made a joke about a missionary who was gang raped and murdered during a prison riot in 1989. “But she was so beautiful,” Duterte said. “I thought the mayor should have been first.” 

(REUTERS/Harley Palangchao)

A witness testified in Sept. 2016, claiming he was a member of Duterte's alleged "Davao Death Squad," and that the Filipino president gave orders to kill drug dealers, drug users and others who may violate the law. 

(Photo credit should read Ezra Acayan / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

In December of 2016, Duterte said President Donald Trump endorses his violent and deadly campaign against drugs after a brief phone call. 

(REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco)

Congressman Gary Alejano filed an impeachment complaint against Duterte in March 2017, claiming he is guilty of crimes against humanity and murder.

(REUTERS/Erik De Castro TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

The White House condemned the Maute group as "cowardly terrorists" and said the United States was a proud ally of the Philippines and backed its fight against extremism.

GETTING OUT

Hundreds of civilians had sheltered in a military camp in Marawi City as troops helped clear the few remaining people from streets where smoke lingered in the air.

"We're leaving," said a resident named Edith, walking along a rundown street carrying a small suitcase. "We can no longer take it and we need to save our children."

Sultan Haji Ismael Demasala said he was staying and would leave his fate in God's hands. "If Allah wills it so, then we cannot stop it," he said, pointing his finger in the air.

SEE ALSO: Philippines' Duterte picks general, running mate and 'sexy' dancer for government posts

Marawi is located in Lanao del Sur province, a stronghold of the Maute, a fierce, but little-known group that has been a tricky opponent for the military.

Military leaders say the Maute's motivation for taking the city was to raise its profile and earn recognition from Islamic State.

Tuesday's raid was aimed at capturing Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of radical faction of another militant group, the Abu Sayyaf. The government says Hapilon is a point man for Islamic State in the Philippines and has been collaborating with the Maute leaders.

"Based on our intelligence, Isnilon Hapilon is still in the city," said Jo-Ar Herrera, spokesman for the First Infantry Regiment.

The Maute group's rise is a source of concern for Mindanao native Duterte, who is familiar with Muslim separatist unrest but alarmed by the prospect of rebels helping Islamic State to recruit and establish a presence in the volatile region of 22 million people.

The president held a cabinet meeting on Thursday in Davao, his home city and the biggest on Mindanao.

Security was stepped up in Davao, with more military checkpoints and some businesses sending staff home during daylight hours. Residents were urged to stay vigilant.

In the city where Duterte was mayor for 22 years, and enjoys a cult-like following, residents were supportive of martial law.

"It's not a hassle. It is good because it prevents harmful events," said manicurist Zoraida Jakosalem Himaya. "He is like a father telling his children what to do."

(Additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales in Davao City and Enrico Dela Cruz and Manuel Mogato in Manila; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.