Army tanks roll into Marawi City
MARAWI CITY — Army tanks rolled into this predominantly Muslim city on Thursday as government forces tried to regain full control after terrorists besieged the city, sending thousands of residents fleeing for their lives and raising fears of extremists gaining traction in the country and human rights abuses in the wake of the government’s response.
Troops began clearing parts of the city of Abu Sayyaf and Maute group fighters in gun battles that have left at least 22 people dead since Tuesday, including an ambulance driver and his companion, according to Lt. Col. Jo-Ar Herrera, spokesperson for the Army’s 1st Infantry Division.
The military said it was trying to verify a report that the terrorists also killed nine civilians they had stopped at a checkpoint. GMA 7 on Wednesday showed images of nine people who had apparently been shot while their hands were tied together.
The terrorists also are holding hostage Marawi parish priest Fr. Teresito “Chito” Suganob, three church workers and 10 worshippers whom they seized on Tuesday when they barged into the Cathedral of Our Lady Help of Christians.
Much of Marawi was still a no-go zone on Thursday and intense gunfire could be heard constantly throughout the day, according to the French news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Marawi resident Maki Panandigan told the Inquirer that the fighting between the terrorists and government forces began around 9:45 a.m. He said later in the afternoon that mortar shelling continued and several houses were on fire.
Terrorists snipers fired at a military camp that journalists have been using as a base. Reporters and cameramen scampered for cover and no one was wounded.
The military said it had dropped bombs on residential neighborhoods.
“We are using surgical airstrikes,” Herrera told reporters moments before big clouds of black smoke rose from a bombed area near the provincial government building as air force heliopters swooped ahead.
“We are requesting our people in Marawi to go to safe places … and to stay indoors,” Herrera said.
Hundreds of civilians, including children, were sheltering in a military camp in
Packed vehicles that stretched for kilometers were streaming out of Marawi on Thursday morning. Fleeing residents were crammed inside or on top of vehicles, clutching their belongings.
More than half of the city’s over 200,000 residents had already evacuated as of Wednesday, according to Gov. Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Mohammad Usman, a 49-year-old resident, said some people are likely trapped with no way out.
“At night, we can hear the gunfire. I’m just praying that the bullets will not find their way to my house and hit us,” he said as he left the city. “I hope that the bombs will not land nearby and harm us.”
At road checkpoints, troops searched vehicles for weapons and bombs, and suspected terrorists trying to escape by joining the exodus out of Marawi.
Tata Sembrano Campos, 50, who was staying at the evacuation center outside the headquarters of the 103rd Infantry Brigade in Marawi, told the Inquirer they were terrified when firefights erupted on Tuesday.
Campos said her 26-year-old son, Joey, was riding his motorcycle with his two friends when they were attacked by the armed men.
“The attackers followed them, and shot and killed his two friends. My son was wounded,” Campos said. “I really don’t know what we did wrong to them.”
Myrna Jo Henry, speaking for the Humanitarian Emergency Response Action Team of the ARMM (Heart-ARMM), said at least 7,000 individuals were staying in six evacuation centers where they receive rice and canned goods.
Gridlock in Iligan City
One woman, who identified herself only as Fatima, fled as far as Cagayan de Oro City with her four children.
She said she and her family hitched a ride on her in-laws’ vehicle and were on the road for almost 24 hours, arriving in Cagayan de Oro City midday on Thursday because of a gridlock in Iligan City.
Fatima told the Inquirer that she had just stepped out of a money-transfer office on Tuesday inside Mindanao State University (MSU) main campus in Barangay Rapasun to get the money her husband had sent from Manila when the fighting erupted.
She immediately decided to get out of the city with her children.
“We haven’t brought anything. Me and my children only had the clothes we wear,” she said. “We didn’t care if there were gunshots. We just wanted to get out of Marawi.”
“The armed men ordered us to hurry up and leave Marawi. They also said they will burn our houses,” she added.
Aminoden Guro, director of the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board for Northern Mindanao,
said nine buses that were deployed to evacuate people
still trapped in Marawi were stopped from proceeding on Thursday because of the ongoing firefights.
Guro said several improvised explosive devices were planted by the terrorists in some parts of the city that could endanger both rescuers and evacuees.
He said there were about 500 students stranded on the MSU campus but they were being cared for by the school’s administration and secured by soldiers and police.
Dozens of public school teachers from Wao had taken shelter inside the Lanao del Sur Provincial Capitol building with government employees guarded by law enforcers and government troops, he added.
The military said it had rescued 120 people from a school and a hospital, and was trying to isolate Maute fighters while awaiting reinforcements that were being blocked by rebels.
The fighting erupted late on Tuesday, when the Army raided the Marawi hideout of Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, who iacs on Washington’s list of most-wanted terrorists and has a $5-million bounty on his head.
The operation, however, quickly went wrong. The terrorists called in reinforcements and swept through the streets of Marawi, torching Dansalan College and the Catholic cathedral.
They also freed 107 inmates, including members of the Maute group, from the city jail and the Malabang District Jail. They later burned down the city jail.
Herrera said the military estimated that 30 to 40 terrorists were still holed up in various parts of the city.
Authorities said ending the crisis was proving extremely hard because the gunmen were holed up in residential buildings, had planted improvised bombs in the streets and holding hostages.
Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility for the rampage via its Amaq news agency.
Hapilon and the Maute group have formed an alliance and pledged allegiance to IS. He was reportedly appointed leader of the alliance.
Hapilon, whose whereabouts were unclear, is an Arabic-speaking Islamic preacher known for his expertise in commando assaults. He was wounded by a military airstrike in January.
Martial law declaration
The Maute is a clan-based group blamed for the bombing of the Davao City night market in September 2016 that killed 15 people.
In response to the fighting in Marawi, President Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao, which is regarded as the traditional homeland of Muslim Filipinos.
Mr. Duterte, who has waged a controversial war on drugs that has claimed thousands of lives, warned martial law would be “harsh” and similar to military rule imposed by dictator Ferdinand Marcos a generation ago. —WITH REPORTS FROM JIGGER J. JERUSALEM AND THE WIRES
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