Scores flee Islamist gunmen in war-torn Philippine city

Marawi (Philippines) (AFP) - Scores of people ran to freedom through a terrifying gauntlet of military air strikes and Islamist gunmen Saturday, nearly two weeks after being trapped in a deadly battle for a Philippine city.

They included one of Marawi city's most respected politicians, who hid 71 Christians in his home and led 144 people through downtown streets held by self-styled Islamic State fighters and strewn with rotting corpses.

Norodin Alonto Lucman, the former vice governor of a Muslim self-ruled area that includes the now embattled city, said he twice turned away gunmen, some of them neighbours and distant relatives, at his Marawi home asking for food and weapons.

But supplies eventually ran out and they fled through bombed out downtown streets at the mercy of Islamist snipers.

"It's strewn with debris, dead bodies of chickens, rats, dogs, even the smell of rotting flesh," he said of their two-kilometre (1.2-mile) route.

- Surviving hell -

"As we walked many people saw us on the street and they joined us," said Lucman.

Twenty-three Christian teachers and 15 other companions also ran to safety Saturday from another area of Marawi, a city of 200,000 and the Islamic capital of the mainly Catholic Philippines.

"We laid on the floor in the dark each night whenever we heard gunshots or explosions. We barricaded the doors with furniture and a refrigerator," high school teacher Jerona Sedrome, 27, told AFP.

But after two attempts, the militants forced their way in and the teachers hid in a tunnel beneath the house, she added.

The rescued teachers recounted between tears and gulps of coffee and bottled water how they survived on steamed rice and rainwater over nearly two weeks of air strikes, fires, and gunfire that destroyed many of the surrounding houses.

"If it didn't rain we had no water and we didn't eat," said Sedrome's younger sister and fellow teacher, Jane Rose Sedrome, 25.

"We passed through three corpses being eaten by maggots," fellow teacher Regene Apao, 23, told AFP.

"We knew they were ISIS because they wore black clothing and black head masks."

Marawi has been transformed into a warzone since hundreds of gunmen rampaged through the city on May 23.

The onslaught was part of a grand plan to establish a Southeast Asian caliphate, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Saturday during a brief visit with troops.

He added that up to 250 gunmen held strategic buildings in downtown Marawi nearly two weeks later -- nearly five times the military's original estimate.

He said there was no indication they would surrender or flee, and could not say when the military operation would finish as fears over civilian casualties mounted.

"We believe this is ISIS because normally in this kind of conflict the local fighters will just scamper away and maybe hide in the mountains," he said, using an alternative name for IS.

- A fight to the last -

"But surprisingly this group has just holed up there and are just waiting to fight it out maybe to the last."

Of the 120 militants killed, eight were from Chechnya, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Lorenzana said.

The holdouts have human shields, thought to include a Catholic priest and 14 others kidnapped last week, the military has said.

As many as 2,000 people also remained trapped in desperate conditions in these areas, according to officials, likely without food and water and with some injured or ailing.

Lucman, the local politician, said he heard the militants had executed many Christians in the early days of the siege, and fears up to a thousand combatants and civilians are already dead.

An additional 38 soldiers and police have also been killed along with 19 civilians, said officials.

The military has said it is firing artillery and rockets from the air, as well as dropping conventional bombs, as ground forces in armoured vehicles battle with the heavily armed militants in the streets.

Arnold Balo, 28, an ice cream factory worker, said he cradled a boy in one hand and carried a half-metre long machete in the other, their only protection from the gunmen as he escaped.

At one point, a gunman perched near the top of a building aimed a rifle at him and ordered him to put his weapon on the ground, Balo said.

"I will do as you order sir. Please don't kill us," he said he told the gunman. Balo said he dropped the machete, and the militant allowed the group to pass.

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