AFP steps up bombing operations in Marawi
MARAWI CITY — Military aircraft bombed rebel positions and ground troops launched a renewed push against Islamic State (IS)-inspired terrorists holed up in this city on Tuesday, and a military spokesperson said the aim was to wrap up the fighting as soon as possible.
The offensive came amid worry that terrorist reinforcements could arrive after Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Fighting in Marawi has entered a fifth week, and nearly 350 people have been killed, according to the military count.
Fleeing residents say they have seen scores of bodies in the debris of homes destroyed in the bombing and crossfire.
“We are doing our best to expedite the liberation of Marawi at the soonest time possible,” Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla, spokesperson for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said as
Army and police commanders met in nearby Cagayan de Oro City to reassess strategy and operations against the Maute and Abu Sayyaf terrorists who had pledged allegiance to the IS jihadist group in Iraq and Syria.
“We cannot definitely say when we could end this because we are fighting door-to-door and there are booby traps that pose danger to our troops,” Padilla said.
The seizure of Marawi has alarmed Southeast Asian nations, which fear IS—losing its foothold in Iraq and Syria—is trying to set up an enclave in southern Philippines that could threaten the whole region.
Padilla said the military aimed to prevent the conflict from escalating after the end of Ramadan.
“We are closely watching certain groups and we hope they will not join the fight,”
Some Muslim residents said other groups could join the fighting after Ramadan.
“As devout Muslims, we are forbidden to fight during Ramadan so afterward, there may be new groups coming in,” said Faisal Amir, who has stayed on in the city despite the crisis.
Last week, Padilla said the military was setting no more deadlines for retaking Marawi from the terrorists, after missing a June 12 deadline to clear the city.
“It may take some time,” he said, explaining that the military, which was used to jungle warfare, was now fighting on urban terrain where the terrorists were holed up in homes and high-rise buildings and holding civilians as human shields.
“So our entry into the inner areas of Marawi is done very carefully. The guidance of the chief of staff is to ensure we are able to save innocent lives,” Padilla said.
Fighting was intense early on Tuesday as security forces made a push to drive the terrorists, entrenched in Marawi’s commercial district, south toward a lake on the edge of the city.
“The troops continue to get deeper into once enemy-held positions, as evidenced by the recovery of [bodies] of terrorists and their firearms,” Padilla said.
Planes flew overhead, dropping bombs while on the ground, automatic gunfire was sustained with occasional blasts from bombs and artillery.
Armored vehicles fired volleys of shells while the terrorists responded with gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades.
Fighting later died down as heavy rain fell.
An Army corporal near the front line told Reuters soldiers were tagging houses and buildings that had been cleared.
“We still have to clear more than 1,000 structures,” he said, adding infantry units were left behind at “cleared” areas to prevent terrorists from recapturing ground they had lost.
2 more soldiers killed
In a statement, Padilla said the government’s losses rose to 65 with the deaths of two more soldiers in the fighting.
As of Monday, the terrorists had lost 258, he said.
The civilian deaths remained at 26, although the number could be higher as the military had not yet reached inner parts of the city where the terrorists reportedly executed Christians.
Maranao religious and civic leaders have asked President Duterte to be allowed to talk to the terrorists to bring an end to the crisis.
Mr. Duterte, however, has rejected any negotiations with the terrorists and said martial law, which he has proclaimed in all of Mindanao, stays until he is sure no more shot will
Mr. Duterte visited evacuees in Iligan City on Monday and apologized to them for the ordeal they were going through, but said he needed to drive the terrorists out of the city for the safety of its residents.
“I would like to say sorry to the Maranao people. I am very, very, very sorry that this happened to us,” he said.
“I hope in the near future, you will find a new heart to forgive my soldiers, the government, even me, for declaring martial law,” he said.
‘I have no choice’
He had no choice, he said, because “[Maute terrorists] were destroying Marawi” by preaching extremism and trafficking in illegal drugs.
“I have to drive them out,” he said.
During a visit to wounded soldiers in Cagayan de Oro later, Mr. Duterte said the country’s hope of stamping out the Maute group lay in expediting the peace process with Moro separatist groups.
He said that once the peace process went through, he would ask the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to deal with the Maute group and its Abu Sayyaf allies.
“You take care of that since that is the area you want—central Mindanao, Lanao, Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat,” Mr. Duterte said he would tell MILF chair Murad Ebrahim.
On Monday, Mindanao Development Authority chief Abul Khayr Alonto also rejected any talks with the terrorists, saying the Maute and Abu Sayyaf gunmen holed up in Marawi deserved to be locked up.
“We do not negotiate. Let us arrest and put them all in jail,” Alonto said.
Some of the terrorists may have already fled Marawi to escape the fresh military advance.
Thirteen suspected Maute followers were arrested in Pagadian City in Zamboanga del Sur province on Friday after attracting attention in a hospital. —Reports Nikko Dizon, Leila B. Salaverria, Philip C. Tubeza, Allan Nawal, Ryan D. Rosauro, and Julie S. Alipala
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