As the fighting continues in the city of Marawi in southern Philippines, a number of residents braved the snipers of ISIS-linked Maute fighters, shielding Christians on their exodus from the war zone into safer ground.
Norodin Lucman, a clan leader and a former politician, hid 50 Christian workers in his home for 10 days before deciding to flee the city on Saturday together with other trapped civilians, Inquirer reported.
Lucman led a group of 71 people, braving the snipers as they walked out of the war-torn city. He said their exodus out of Marawi was prompted by circulating text messages that government forces were planning to launch attacks against the militants.
"There's this plan to bomb the whole city if ISIS don't agree to the demands of the government," he said, according to Reuters. "As we walked, others joined us. We had to pass through a lot of [militant] snipers."
The militants stopped some of them and asked if there were Christians in the group, but they told the Maute fighters there were none and hid the Christians' identity from them.
Another resident, Leny Paccon, also received a similar text message warning them to go out of the city.
"We had a tip from the general commander that we should go out," Paccon said, according to Reuters. "When I got the text, immediately we go out ... about 7 o'clock."
Paccon sheltered 44 Christians and 10 other residents in her home. They marched out of the city from a different area.
A total of 160 civilians safely made it out of Marawi on Saturday morning, including teachers from Dansalan College, the school that the Maute fighters burned on the first day of the attack. As of Monday, the total number of rescued civilians is 1,450.
Lucman recounted seeing decaying bodies lying on the streets.
"I almost puked as we were walking," he said.
He said he saw about 1,000 dead bodies. However, the military estimates the death toll in Marawi at 178: 120 Maute fighters, 36 government troops and 20 civilians.
The Maute fighters executed people they identified as Christians. At the onset of the attack, they burned a church a cathedral and abducted a parish priest along with a number of church workers and worshipers.
Both Lucman and Paccon said militants knocked on their doors, asking if they were hiding Christians. They told them women and children were inside their homes and asked the militants to leave. The fact that their houses were located within 100 meters of the Maute command posts added to their anxiety.
The ISIS-linked Maute group has been joined by Jihadists from other countries, sparking fears that ISIS could be trying to establish an Asian foothold as it weakens in Syria and Iraq.
"IS is shrinking in Iraq and Syria, and decentralizing in parts of Asia and the Middle East," Rohan Gunaratna, security expert at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said according to Reuters. "One of the areas where it is expanding is Southeast Asia and the Philippines is the center of gravity."
So far, the military has killed militants from Malaysia, Indonesia, Saudi, Yemen, Chechnya, Pakistan, Turkey, Morocco and India.
Philippine Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana said residents reported seeing "a lot of foreign-looking fighters." Their number was estimated to be around 40.
Of the 400 to 500 Maute fighters that attacked Marawi two weeks ago, an estimated 250 more are left in the city, Lorenzana said.
"They can still put up a good fight. That's why it's giving us difficulty in clearing the area," he said.
Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte instructed the military on Monday to put an end to the Marawi conflict in three days.
Colonel Edgard Arevalo, spokesperson of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), said they are "exploring different means" to meet the deadline while considering the safety of the civilians, ABS-CBN reported.
Arevalo confirmed reports that the militants are separating the Christians from the Muslims.
"It's sad that we are getting reports from the ground that the terrorists are separating fleeing Christians and Muslim," he said. "They are letting the Muslims go but not the Christians."