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Civilians Trapped As Philippine Military Launches Airstrikes On ISIS-Allied Group


Philippines armed forces pounded militant positions again on Saturday, the fifth-straight day of fighting between government forces and ISIS-linked fighters who have occupied parts of the city of Marawi on the island of Mindanao. A military spokesman says that at least 40 militants have been killed since the fighting began, and at least 13 soldiers have died. We're joined now from Mindanao by Michael Sullivan.

Michael, thanks so much for being with us.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: You're welcome, Scott.

SIMON: You're just back from Marawi. What did you see?

SULLIVAN: Scott, I saw a ghost town, really. I mean, it was eerie. It's a city of more than 200,000 people. But it just looked as if someone had suddenly just snatched them all away, just plucked them from the street. The only people we saw in the city proper were heavily armed Philippine soldiers trying to flush out militant snipers. And you could hear intermittent gunfire on the streets approaching that part of the city that the militants still control.

And from another higher vantage point, you could see a thick plume of smoke. I couldn't tell whether it was from a fire started by the militants - they've torched many buildings in the past several days - or if it might have been the work of the helicopters who were pounding the militants' positions. I saw them circling just before noon. And you could hear the crump of the explosions and heavy machine gunfire, which stopped after they left.

SIMON: Where have people gone? How many have left? Do you know?

SULLIVAN: Well, the vice governor today said that 80 to 90 percent are gone. And that seems easy to believe based on what I saw. A few have stayed, some to try to protect their belongings. But most have just fled to other parts of the island to stay with family or friends, or they're staying in temporary camps. I spoke to some here in Iligan, where I am, who don't know what's happened to their homes. And they're worried, and they're angry, mostly at the militants - the ones I spoke with at least. And today is the first day of Ramadan, which many would've been celebrating in their homes, but now they can't.

SIMON: Military give any indication when they think they'll try for a final assault to drive militants out of the city?

SULLIVAN: (Laughter) That depends on who you ask. On Thursday, I think it was, some military officials were saying a week tops. But the general here on the ground today refused to be pinned down. He wouldn't give a timetable. He said it was slow going, a house-to-house kind of a thing in most parts of the city, in an effort to try to limit the collateral damage. So no, no real word.

SIMON: And security forces are having a tough time capturing one of the leaders, Isnilon Hapilon. What can you tell us about that effort?

SULLIVAN: That effort is ongoing. He's from the terror group Abu Sayyaf, you might remember. And he's also wanted by the U.S., too. The military says he's still in the city. They say they believe he's still in the city. And they say they're zeroing in on where. But that's how this whole thing started, right?

So the military now admits they had bad information when they tried to take him. And they admit that this is bigger than just one man anyway - that this siege, if you will, seems to be an effort by ISIS-inspired local groups to be recognized as a province of their caliphate. And who knows if that'll happen? But the only thing that we do know is that the Philippine government is now suddenly taking the threat posed by ISIS, by the Islamic State here in the Philippines, more seriously. President Duterte talked about it earlier this week. Other officials said there were foreign fighters among the militants killed so far. So it's clear it's not just homegrown anymore. It's got legs.

SIMON: Reporter Michael Sullivan in Iligan on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines - thanks so much for being with us, Michael.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.