Residents shield Christians in bold exodus from Philippines city

MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) - More than 160 civilians walked out of the besieged Philippines city of Marawi just after dawn on Saturday, deceiving Islamist fighters they encountered by hiding the identity of the many Christians among them.

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The audacious exodus came after text message warnings that a major assault by Philippines aircraft and ground troops was imminent in the center of the southern city, where some 250 militants and more than 2,000 civilians remain trapped.

"We saved ourselves," said Norodin Alonto Lucman, a well-known former politician and traditional clan leader who sheltered 71 people, including more than 50 Christians, in his home during the battle that erupted on May 23 in the town of more than 200,000 on the southern island of Mindanao.

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Islamist terrorist take over Marawi, Christians flee
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Islamist terrorist take over Marawi, Christians flee
A view of the Maute group stronghold with an ISIS flag in Marawi City in southern Philippines May 29, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
Soldiers onboard military trucks ride along the main street as government troops continue their assault on insurgents from the Maute group, who have taken over large parts of Marawi City, Philippines June 2, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
Smoke billowing from a burning building is seen as government troops continue their assault on insurgents from the Maute group, who have taken over large parts of Marawi City, Philippines June 2, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
A resident carries chickens and her belongings after fleeing from her home in Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao on June 3, 2017. Hundreds of Islamist gunmen rampaged through the city of 200,000, the Islamic capital of the mainly Catholic Philippines, on May 23 after government forces attempted to arrest their leader, Isnilon Hapilon. Up to 50 gunmen continued to control downtown Marawi nearly two weeks later with at least 15 hostages including a Catholic priest, with some being used as human shields, the military said. / AFP PHOTO / Noel CELIS (Photo credit should read NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)
A soldier walks past a graffiti as government troops continue their assault on insurgents from the Maute group, who have taken over large parts of Marawi City, Philippines June 2, 2017. The graffiti reads: "Always loyal." REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco TEMPLATE OUT
Blindfolded suspected self-styled Islamic State (IS) group members are transported in a police vehicle after being captured in a village in Marawi City on the southern island of Mindanao on June 3, 2017. Hundreds of Islamist gunmen rampaged through the city of 200,000, the Islamic capital of the mainly Catholic Philippines, on May 23 after government forces attempted to arrest their leader, Isnilon Hapilon. Up to 50 gunmen continued to control downtown Marawi nearly two weeks later with at least 15 hostages including a Catholic priest, with some being used as human shields, the military said. / AFP PHOTO / Noel CELIS (Photo credit should read NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Philippine marines patrol a deserted area on their way to assault an Islamist militants' hideout in Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao on June 3, 2017. Hundreds of Islamist gunmen rampaged through the city of 200,000, the Islamic capital of the mainly Catholic Philippines, on May 23 after government forces attempted to arrest their leader, Isnilon Hapilon. Up to 50 gunmen continued to control downtown Marawi nearly two weeks later with at least 15 hostages including a Catholic priest, with some being used as human shields, the military said. / AFP PHOTO / Noel CELIS (Photo credit should read NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)
A volunteer doctor feeds 2 years old Manequin Lasola who was trapped for 11 days with her father Julio Lasola at Pangarungan Village in Marawi City, on the southern island of Mindanao on June 3, 2017. Philippine troops battle Islamists in the southern city of Marawi, with nearly two weeks of clashes claiming at least 175 lives. / AFP PHOTO / NOEL CELIS (Photo credit should read NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Julio Lasola and 2 years old Manequin Lasola arrive at the Lanao Del Sur Capitol after being trapped for 11 days in at Pangarungan Village in Marawi City, on the southern island of Mindanao on June 3, 2017. Philippine troops battle Islamists in the southern city of Marawi, with nearly two weeks of clashes claiming at least 175 lives. / AFP PHOTO / NOEL CELIS (Photo credit should read NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)
A volunteer doctor gives the thumbs up to 2 years old Manequin Lasola who was trapped for 11 days with her father Julio Lasola at Pangarungan Village in Marawi City, on the southern island of Mindanao on June 3, 2017. Philippine troops battle Islamists in the southern city of Marawi, with nearly two weeks of clashes claiming at least 175 lives. / AFP PHOTO / NOEL CELIS (Photo credit should read NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)
A volunteer doctor tends to a boy that was trapped for 11 days with his family at Pangarungan Village in Marawi City, on the southern island of Mindanao on June 3, 2017. Philippine troops battle Islamists in the southern city of Marawi, with nearly two weeks of clashes claiming at least 175 lives. / AFP PHOTO / NOEL CELIS (Photo credit should read NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Military tanks maneouver through a village street as they advance towards a position of Islamist militants in Marawi, on the southern island of Mindanao on June 1, 2017. Philippine airstrikes aimed at Islamist militants who are holding hostages as human shields killed 11 soldiers, authorities said on June 1, as they conceded hundreds of gunmen may have escaped a blockade. / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A boy clutches to his mother after residents where evacuated from their homes on the outskirts of Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao on May 31, 2017. Philippine troops have killed 89 Islamist militants during more than a week of urban battles but a final showdown is expected to be fierce as the gunmen protect their leaders and hold hostages, authorities said on May 31. / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
A rescue worker (C) meets residents who were evacuated from their homes after nine days at a village on the outskirts of Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao on May 31, 2017. Philippine troops have killed 89 Islamist militants during more than a week of urban battles but a final showdown is expected to be fierce as the gunmen protect their leaders and hold hostages, authorities said on May 31. / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Rescuers help children onto a truck after they were rescued from their homes in a village on the outskirts of Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao on May 31, 2017, as fighting between government forces and Islamist militants continues. Philippine troops have killed 89 Islamist militants during more than a week of urban battles but a final showdown is expected to be fierce as the gunmen protect their leaders and hold hostages, authorities said on May 31. / AFP PHOTO / Ted ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
MARAWI CITY, PHILIPPINES - MAY 30: Residents who survived the siege of ISIS-linked militatnts line up to receive supply and food in an evacuation center inside the city on May 30, 2017 in Marawi city, southern Philippines. Thousand of Marawi residents escaped the city in fear of ISIS-linked militants taking over the city, some have walked for hours to days through various routes without food and water. Filipino authorities announced around 2,000 people had been stranded amid street battles and air strikes while bodies of foreign Islamist militants were discovered during the ongoing battles in the southern city. President Rodrigo Duterte had declared 60 days of martial law in Mindanao on Tuesday after local terrorist groups Maute Group and Abu Sayyaf rampaged through Marawi city and said that martial law could be extended across the Philippines while thousands of residents continue to flee the crisis in Marawi, which is home to some 200,000 people. Jes Aznar/Getty Images
TOPSHOT - A Muslim policeman prays inside a building riddled with bullet holes as a mosque is reflected on a glass window during a lull in fighting in Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao on May 29, 2017. Security forces traded heavy gunfire with Islamist militants inside a southern Philippine city on May 29, as fears grew for up to 2,000 people unable to escape a week of fighting that has left women and children among the dead. / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
MARAWI CITY, PHILIPPINES - MAY 30: Filipino soldiers engage in a firefight with ISIS-linked militants, on May 30, 2017 in Marawi city, southern Philippines. Philippine government troops are battling their way as they inch towards the city center where ISIS-linked militants have been holed for nearly a week. The fighting at Marawi city had forced around 85,000 people to seek refuge at evacuation centers in Marawi as the week long gun battles between ISIS-linked militants and security troops rose to around 100 with at least 19 civilians being killed in the fighting, according to local media. Filipino authorities announced around 2,000 people had been stranded amid street battles and air strikes while bodies of foreign Islamist militants were discovered during the ongoing battles in the southern city. President Rodrigo Duterte had declared 60 days of martial law in Mindanao on Tuesday after local terrorist groups Maute Group and Abu Sayyaf rampaged through Marawi city and said that martial law could be extended across the Philippines while thousands of residents continue to flee the crisis in Marawi, which is home to some 200,000 people. Jes Aznar/Getty Images
A woman is assisted as she attempts to identify bodies dumped off a cliff along the highway leading to Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao on May 28, 2017. Islamist militants who have gone on a rampage in a southern Philippine city have killed 19 civilians including women and children, the military said on May 28, as fighting entered the sixth day. / AFP PHOTO / Ted ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
A Philippine marine patrols a deserted street in Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao on May 30, 2017. Philippine authorities on May 30 warned Islamist militants occupying parts of a southern city to surrender or die, as attack helicopters pounded the gunmen's strongholds where up to 2,000 residents were feared trapped. / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
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"There's this plan to bomb the whole city if ISIS don't agree to the demands of the government," he said, referring to local and foreign fighters who have sworn allegiance to the ultra-radical Islamic State.

Many evacuees told Reuters they had received text messages warning of a bombing campaign.

"We had a tip from the general commander that we should go out," said Leny Paccon, who gave refuge to 54 people in her home, including 44 Christians. "When I got the text, immediately we go out ... about 7 o'clock."

By then, Lucman and his guests had begun their escape march from another area, holding white flags and moving briskly.

"As we walked, others joined us," he told reporters. "We had to pass through a lot of [militant] snipers."

Some of the civilians were stopped and asked if there were any Christians among them, said Jaime Daligdig, a Christian construction worker.

"We shouted 'Allahu akbar'," he told Reuters, adding that thanks to that Muslim rallying cry they were allowed to pass.

Those who fled included teachers from Dansalan College, a protestant school torched on the first day of the battle.

Christians have been killed and taken hostage by the militants, a mix of local fighters from the Maute Group and other Islamist outfits, as well as foreigners who joined the cause under the Islamic State banner.

The vast majority of Filipinos are Christian, but Mindanao has a larger proportion of Muslims and Islam is followed by the vast majority in Marawi City.

ROTTING BODIES, DEBRIS

Lucman said that many of those trapped were on the verge of starvation, which also gave them the courage to leave.

He described a scene of devastation in the town center, where the streets were strewn with rotting bodies and debris. "I almost puked as we were walking," Lucman said, estimating that there were more than 1,000 dead.

Official government estimates recorded 120 militants, 38 government forces and 20 civilians as dead on Saturday.

Lucman and Paccon said militants had knocked on their doors while they sheltered the terrified Christians. They shooed them away saying there were women and children inside.

Adding to the anxiety, both said they were within 100 meters (320 feet) of militant command posts. Although the Philippines military knew civilians remained in their homes, ordnance exploded nearby repeatedly over the past week.

Resident Asnaira Asis said militants knocked on her door too, offering money or food if she handed over her 11-year-old son. "They wanted him to be a fighter," she told Reuters after joining the morning exodus. "I said no."

After an impromptu ceasefire as the civilians evacuated, bombing and ground skirmishes continued on Saturday, and FA50 fighter jets dropped bombs on the town center.

Philippines Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the conflict would be over soon but he gave no operational plans. He said there were 250 militants still in the town, far more than the 20-30 cited by the military on Friday.

"They can still put up a good fight. That's why it's giving us difficulty in clearing the area," he told a news conference.

Lorenzana said there was still a big cohort of foreign fighters in Marawi.

Officials have said militants from as far away as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Chechnya and Morocco joined the battle, raising concerns that Islamic State is seeking to establish a regional foothold there.

(Editing by John Chalmers and Helen Popper)

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