The discovery of the five victims among 17 other bodies retrieved would be the first evidence that civilians trapped in Marawi 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.
Lt. Col. Emmanuel Garcia of the Western Mindanao Command said in a text message to reporters the five decapitated were found with the other 17 civilians killed by militants.
It was not clear when the bodies were found. A civilian rescue worker, Abdul Azis Lomondot, told Reuters earlier there were body parts found on Wednesday, but there was “no proof of beheading.”
The battle for this predominantly Muslim city in the southern main island of Mindanao entered its 35th 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 US counterparts, has much of the region on edge, concerned that the influence of IS 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 F. Padilla, Jr. said it was likely that many civilians had been killed and the death toll — already at 27 before the latest 17 were announced — was only what the authorities could confirm independently. He said a “significant number” of dead had been seen by those who had escaped fighting.
“(It) may increase significantly once we are able to validate all this information,” Mr. Padilla told reporters.
“There have been a significant number that have been seen but again, we cannot include many of these,” he said.
Mr. Padilla said the cause 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 Web site 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 people on their knees, shot in the head from behind.
Reuters was unable to confirm the authenticity of the reports.
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.
It has played down the impact of daily air strikes and mortar assaults aimed at rebel sniper positions, which have reduced areas of the lakeside town to rubble and alarmed people stuck there, some of whom have said the shelling was a bigger threat than the militants.
Disaster officials are keen to start dangerous missions to recover what they believe are large numbers of bodies in the streets near the conflict zone.
President Rodrigo R. Duterte said on Tuesday he was prepared from the outset for a long fight against a well-armed Maute motivated only by murder and destruction.
Mr. Padilla called for patience and said troops needed more time to flush out the gunmen and secure the city.
“Our combat environment is sensitive. First, there are trapped civilians that we have to protect. They also have hostages and third, there are many traps so we have to clear buildings slowly,” he said.
At the same time, he played down the capability of Abu Sayyaf terrorist Isnilon Hapilon, a key figure in the siege of Marawi.
“Now, ang kapasidad niya na maglunsad ng anumang klaseng panggugulo, hindi po kami naniniwala na kaya pa niya. (Now, regarding his capacity to launch a new attack, we don’t believe he can do that),” Mr. Padilla said on the heels of reports he has yet to confirm that Hapilon has fled Marawi City.
Mr. Padilla also said the military has yet to verify Mr. Duterte’s claim that a cousin of his living in Marrawi was also killed.
In a related development, at least 30 state prosecutors will undergo training for continuous trial on handling cases to be filed against Maute members and sympathizers, Justice Secretary Vitaliano N. Aguirre II said on Tuesday. This, while his request to transfer cases from Cagayan de Oro courts to Taguig courts, remain pending before the Supreme Court (SC).
“We are already choosing at least 30 members of the panel for them to undergo training on continuous trial in these rebellion cases,” Mr. Aguirre said in a text message to reporters.
For its part, the Department of Budget has released P800 million in intelligence fund to the military and the Philippine National Police.
“According to our operations, we released P500-million and P300-million intel funds for AFP (Armed forces of the Philippines) and PNP (Philippine National Police) in view of recent incident of Mindanao,” said Department of Budget and Management (DBM) Undersecretary Laura B. Pascua told BusinessWorld in a mobile phone message yesterday.
She added that the DBM asked the Office of the President (OP) to release another set of funds from the contingent fund, this time for the Philippine Air Force (PAF).
“In addition, we have recommended to the OP additional release of P267.888 million for procurement of airmunitions of the PAF” she added.
The funds will be used for combat-related operations.
President Rodrigo R. Duterte had announced a fund of P20 billion, enlarged from the initial P10 billion he promised earlier, for the relief and rehabilitation of devastated public infrastructure and homes of families in the besieged city.
According to the Budget department, the budget will be taken from the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council, also known as the calamity fund.
According to the 2017 Budget of Expenditures and Sources of Financing, the contingent fund amounts to P5.5 billion, while the calamity fund amounts to P15.755 billion. — main report by Reuters, withKristine Joy V. PatagandElijah Joseph C. Tubayan