July 10 (UPI) — Children and hostages in the Philippines are being forced to fight with Islamic State supporters while attempting to take control of Marawi, the country’s military said Monday.
On May 23, militants seized Marawi, which is considered the Muslim capital of the largely Catholic Philippines, in an attempt to create an Islamic State province. More than 100 militants remain holed up in the city.
“We continuously get disturbing narratives from [escaped residents] that children as well as hostages are being employed in the firefight,” Brig.-Gen. Restituto Padilla, a military spokesman, told reporters in Manila.
He said some of the extremists are teenagers recruited and trained to use guns when they were still children.
Padilla said attempts are being made to prevent casualties among children and civilians.
“As disturbing as it is, our troops are doing their best to avoid any casualty among these children that are being employed,” Padilla said. “But in the event… they bear arms and are involved in the fighting, there is nothing much that we can do. Similarly to the hostages who are being forced.”
Gunmen took about a dozen hostages, including a Catholic priest, shortly after seizing Marawi.
Some of the 300 civilians still trapped in the area may have been taken captive, said Padilla.
He noted civilians are being forced to carry supplies and ammunition, attend to the wounded and loot the city.
More than 500 people have died in the fighting, including 89 soldiers and police, 39 civilians and 379 militants, according to figures released by the government on Monday.
President Rodrigo Duterte has declared martial law over the entire southern Philippines.
A total of 389,366 civilians have been displaced, according to UNICEF.
UNICEF said Monday in a release there is “little known first-hand information about the situation inside the city due to limited access.”
The relief agency has begun stockpiles and internal funding to provide essential support for water, sanitation and hygiene at evacuation areas but said “there are still significant gaps to meet the needs of the displaced population.”