In a video released by the ISIS media company ‘Amaq, ISIS members are shown destroying icons in a Catholic church in Marawi City, the Philippines, toppling and smashing statues and crucifixes, tearing up pictures of the Pope, and setting fire to the church.
More: Philippines says beheaded civilians found in rebel-held town (of course al-Reuters left the key word out of the headline: “Muslim”)
Five decapitated civilians were found in a Philippine city occupied by Islamist rebels on Wednesday, the military said, warning the number of residents killed by rebel “atrocities” could rise sharply as troops retake more ground.
The discovery of the five victims among 17 bodies retrieved would be the first evidence that civilians trapped in besieged Marawi City have been decapitated during the five-week stand by militants loyal to the Islamic State group, as some who escaped the city have previously reported.
Some 71 security forces and 299 militants have been killed and 246,000 people displaced in the conflict, which erupted after a failed attempt on May 23 to arrest a Filipino militant commander backed by Islamic State’s leadership.
The battle entered its 36th day on Wednesday, with intense gunfights and bombing in the heart of the town and black-clad fighters seen from afar running between buildings as explosions rang out.
The rebels’ hold on Marawi, while incurring the full force of a military for years trained by its U.S. counterparts, has much of the region on edge, concerned that Islamic State’s influence may run deeper than thought.
Those fears are also being felt in Malaysia and Indonesia, whose nationals are among the Maute group of rebels fighting in Marawi, suggesting the group may have built a cross-border network that has gone largely undetected.
Military spokesman Restituto Padilla earlier said it was likely that many civilians had been killed and the death toll – at 27 before the latest 17 were announced – was only what the authorities could confirm independently and escapees had reported many in the area of fighting.
“(It) may increase significantly,” Padilla told reporters. “There have been a significant number that have been seen.”
Padilla said the cause of all of those deaths would be “atrocities committed by the terrorists”.
Among those atrocities, the army says, have been residents being forced to loot homes, take up arms or become sex slaves.
Videos have appeared this month on the website of Islamic State’s Amaq news agency and its social media channels of hostages in Marawi pleading for their lives, saying they would be beheaded if air strikes were not stopped. Clips have also appeared of kneeling captives, shot in the head from behind.
The military has so far been reluctant to discuss the possibility that the real impact of the fighting on civilians could be far more severe than has been reported.