Islamic State fighters in the Philippines are using dozens of Christians - including a priest - as human shields to protect themselves amid an ongoing battle to retake Marawi City.
According to the Daily Mail, militants with the ISIS-linked Maute group are believed be hiding behind 100 Christian hostages after Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte ordered intense bombing raids by planes on the rebel zone.
Authorities believe that Father Teresito Suganob, a Roman Catholic priest who was taken hostage by the terrorist group five weeks ago, is among those being used as shields.
Abdullah Maute, one of two brothers who formed the group, said on Sunday he would free Suganob in return for his parents, who are being held by police. However, his request was refused by Duterte, with his spokesman saying any bargaining with terrorists was "against government policy".
Most of Marawi's 200,000 citizens have fled since the terrorist group overtook the city on May 23, according to Reuters. Those left behind were forced to convert to Islam, carry wounded fighters to mosques, and marry militants of the Maute group, according to army spokesman Jo-Ar Herrera.
"They are being forced to be sex slaves, forced to destroy the dignity of these women," he said. "This is what is happening inside, this is very evident..these are evil personalities."
Seven hostages earlier rescued by government troops shared harrowing stories of their captivity, which included rape and being forced to loot from abandoned houses in the war zone.
"The hostages were tasked to loot houses, establishments [for] ammunition, firearms, cash, [and] gold," Herrera said.
The hostages even allegedly followed a "looting schedule" planned by the extremists and were forced to bring firearms so they could fight against government troops and bring to safety wounded terrorists, Herrera said.
So far, 70 servicemen, 27 civilians and 290 militants have been killed, and 246,000 people have been displaced in clashes between militants and government troops.
The unexpected seizure and the terrorist groups' access to heavy weapons and use of foreign fighters have "raised fears in the mainly Catholic country that the Marawi battle could just be the start of a wider campaign" and reflects the IS's intention to establish a caliphate in Southeast Asia, notes Reuters.
On Tuesday, Duterte, who in May declared martial law across the southern tier of the Philippines in response to the conflict, revealed he had cousins who were members of the Maute group, one of which had been killed. He said his decision to declare martial law was based on an understanding of the group's next move.
"I know the deployment of snipers and where they hid their firearms. I already had the complete picture and I knew that would be a long fight," he said in a speech.
Duterte also said he could not comprehend Islamic State's radical doctrine: "What's painful for me, a fractured ideology entered. All that they want is to kill and destroy, how can we live with that?" he said.
The White House on Thursday condemned the violence in Marawi.
"These cowardly terrorists killed Philippine law enforcement officials and endangered the lives of innocent citizens," a statement said, adding, "The United States is a proud ally of the Philippines, and we will continue to work with the Philippines to address shared threats to the peace and security of our countries."