Troops shift to clearing ops

Soldiers during clearing operations in Marawi

MARAWI CITY—The military said ground troops supported by airstrikes had shifted their focus to clearing Marawi of the “remaining terrorists” who were still holed up in just four villages in the city as fighting to gain full control of the Islamic city continued on Friday.

Lt. Col. Jo-ar Herrera, spokesperson of the 1st Infantry Division, told reporters that government forces were advancing toward the center of the city where the extremists were maintaining their hold on four villages, including Bangolo and Marinaut.

He said the military had recovered and controlled “strategic vantage points” such as tall buildings and key structures in the city.

Three bridges over Agus River, which had earlier been vulnerable to sniper fire, were now under Army control, according to Herrera.

“Enemy resistance continues to dwindle and enemy-held areas continue to get smaller as troops advance,” he said, but added that the military could not say for certain when the fighting would end.

He said at least 225 Islamic State (IS)-linked gunmen from Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups and their foreign and local allies had been killed in the nearly monthlong fighting, which also left 59 soldiers and 26 civilians dead.

The military was validating reports of the deaths of several members of the Maute clan—Omar, Madi, Otto and another, identified only by his alias, Abul, he said.

“We have ways to determine enemy casualties and these include actual body count, eye witness accounts and from intercepted communication,” Herrera said.

He said troops involved in the clearing operations were under orders by Armed Forces chief of staff, Gen. Eduardo Año, to respect civilian property and show complete discipline while giving high regard for the safety of hostages held by the terrorists.

One of the hostages was Fr. Teresito “Chito” Suganob, the vicar general of the Marawi vicariate, Herrera said. “We continue to receive information that Father Chito is still alive,” he said.

He said the leaders of Maute group and Isnilon Hapilon, the acknowledged emir of  IS in Southeast Asia, were “still in the area” along with members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and local warlords.

Military officials say they have been joined by battle-hardened IS fighters from as far away as Yemen and Morocco.

Brig. Gen. Ramiro Manuel Rey, the new commander of Task Force Ranao, said the military had sufficient troops.

“We don’t see any need for additional reinforcements,” Rey said.

Troops involved in the bloodiest firefight to free Marawi in which 13 Marines last week were killed indicated that the clearing operations would be the toughest battles as the gunmen had prepositioned ammunition and even Molotov bombs.

They also were armed with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) to knock down light armored vehicles and had deployed snipers armed with rifles modeled after the .50 caliber US-made Barrett.

The ill-equipped military has mostly operated against rebels in mountainous terrain or on remote islands and is unused to urban warfare.

A combat policeman who spent nine days on the frontlines lamented the state of his equipment.

“We have no Kevlar vests, helmets or new weapons,” he told Reuters.

Aiding the terrorists is Mindanao’s history of clan warfare—known in the local dialect as rido—and most buildings in Marawi have basements and are built with walls of thick concrete.

“The snipers are good, they make sure that with every shot, someone is killed or wounded,” said Pendaton Guro, a retired colonel who has stayed on in Marawi.

From his rooftop overlooking the city, Guro has watched the fighting since it began on May 23 and heard the popping of sniper fire.

“The Maute leaders were trained abroad. It’s hard to fight them,” he said.

If the Army uses armored carriers, the militants respond with RPGs that can penetrate the armor, or shower metal splinters within the vehicle.

“Their RPGs make it hard for our armor to advance. If we get too close, they will fire RPGs,” a soldier, who said he had lost four close comrades in the siege, told Reuters.

Although the military has said it has thrown a cordon around the city, the terrorists appeared to have good stocks of food and ammunition. The assault on Marawi began just before the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when many Muslim families store food because they do not eat in daylight hours.

“They put ammunition and different arms in different places,” said Marawi City police commander Supt. Marlon Tabaya.

“I believe they have planned it for a long time,” he said.

Two front-line officers told Reuters radio intercepts indicated that the militants’ ammunition, arms and food supplies were running low.

There were also signs of discord between the different groups fighting in the city, who come from at least three different Muslim-majority ethnic groups.

“They are calling each other, looking for help, thinking they have left each other,” an Army radio officer said. “They are demoralized.”

Some of the gunmen involved could have slipped out of Marawi and entered the nearby cities of Iligan and Cagayan de Oro, but they would be unable to stage similar assaults, military spokesperson Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla told reporters in Malacañang on Friday.

“Safe to say, I can tell you, they don’t have the capacity to do what they did in Marawi anymore. Their capabilities have been significantly degraded,” he said.

He urged residents of the two cities to be “vigilant, alert and watchful of their surroundings,” and report anything suspicious to the authorities.

Provincial government crisis committee spokesperson Zia Alonto Adiong said 100 bodies of civilians and terrorist gunmen remain uncollected in the rubble nearly a month after the gun battles erupted in Marawi, citing accounts by residents who have escaped from areas of Marawi that are still mired in clashes, and aid volunteers who entered a combat zone during a four-day lull in the fighting last week.

The most serious attack in Southeast Asia so far by IS-aligned militants has displaced most of the more than 200,000 residents of Marawi, the bastion of Islamic faith in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines.

Some US Special Forces soldiers are providing technical support in Marawi under a long-standing arrangement, and a P3 Orion spy plane and drone aircraft have provided reconnaissance, but US troops are not directly involved in the fighting.