Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Saturday ruled out allowing militants linked to the Islamic State (IS) group to flee a southern city in exchange for the release of dozens of hostages.
The militants in May seized large parts of Marawi City on the island of Mindanao, and a hard core of fighters has held out through more than 100 days of airstrikes and ground attacks by troops.
“No way,” Duterte told reporters when asked about a rumor that a rebel leader, Omarkhayam Maute, had proposed releasing hostages in exchange for the safe exit of the militants.
Pockets of fighters remain in the ruins of the heart of a city devastated by artillery and bombings, in an occupation that has alarmed the region about the possibility of the IS, on the back foot in Iraq and Syria, making a new home in the southern Philippines.
The military has launched its final push to retake Marawi, and is coming under heavy fire from militants as troops try to secure buildings and navigate through mines and booby traps.
The military estimates about 20 to 30 hostages are being held, some of whom it says were forced to take up arms against government troops.
“If I can save one life there, I am willing to wait one year” to retake the city, Duterte said of the hostages, after visiting wounded soldiers in Cagayan de Oro, a few hours away from Marawi.
Martial law has been imposed in Mindanao, an island of 22 million people, until the end of the year, to allow the military to break up an alliance of pro-IS militant groups.
On another front, the military is also fighting communist rebels of the New People’s Army following a breakdown in peace talks with the government.
Duterte on Saturday threatened to expand martial law to other areas of the Philippines to crack down on the insurgents.
About 655 militants, 45 civilians and 145 soldiers and police officers have been killed in Marawi, the military said, adding that it has rescued 1,728 civilians.
At least 400,000 people have been displaced.
Army spokesman Colonal Edgard Arevalo said saving hostages is the priority of the military’s mission.
“We are still very mindful of the presence of civilians — guns against their heads — who were made human shields or ordered to wield firearms and ammunition, were converted to become fighters and shoot at our troops,” he said in a statement.
The US has provided technical support to the Philippine military in Marawi.
Visiting Manila on Friday, Australian Minister for Defense Marise Payne offered a small detachment of soldiers to provide training to Philippine forces.
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