Snipers, bombs, mor­tars - Philip­pine troops bat­tle Is­lamists

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Sprawled on the boarded-up bal­cony of a two-storey house, the bar­rel of his ri­fle poked into a hole cut in the wood, the Philip­pine army sniper calls for quiet be­fore tak­ing his shot. “Fir­ing,” he says evenly, be­fore the .50 cal­i­bre shot rings out, send­ing tremors through the house. He was fir­ing at a home less than a kilo­me­ter away, be­lieved to be a strong­hold of Is­lamist mil­i­tants who have been holed up in Marawi City for over five weeks.

A spot­ter sat next to him, with his scope set into an­other hole. The two spoke qui­etly to each other as the sniper took three more shots across the Agus river into the mil­i­tant-held com­mer­cial district of Marawi, now a bat­tle­ground strewn with de­bris from ru­ined build­ings. Scores of bod­ies are rot­ting in the area, and the stench mixes with the smell of gun­pow­der.

Thou­sands of sol­diers are bat­tling to re­take the south­ern Philip­pine city, where mil­i­tants loyal to Is­lamic State launched a light­ning strike on May 23. The south­ern Philip­pines has been marred for decades by in­sur­gency and ban­ditry. But the in­ten­sity of the bat­tle in Marawi and the pres­ence of for­eign fight­ers from In­done­sia, Malaysia, Ye­men and Chech­nya fight­ing along­side lo­cal mil­i­tants has raised con­cerns that the re­gion may be becoming a South­east Asian hub for Is­lamic State as it loses ground in Iraq and Syria.

As troops poured in to con­tain the siege, few were ex­pect­ing a slow, dif­fi­cult and un­fa­mil­iar ur­ban war. “We are used to in­sur­gen­cies... but a de­ploy­ment of this mag­ni­tude, this kind of con­flict is a chal­lenge for our troops,” said Lt Col Christo­pher Tam­pus, one of the of­fi­cers com­mand­ing ground op­er­a­tions in Marawi. He said progress in clear­ing the city has been hin­dered by mil­i­tant fire and booby traps like gas tanks rigged with grenades.

Re­duced to rub­ble

Af­ter weeks of mil­i­tary airstrikes and shelling, Marawi, a lake­side city of around 200,000 is now a ghost town, the cen­tre of which has been re­duced to charred rub­ble and hol­low struc­tures. Build­ings in the mil­i­tary-con­trolled ar­eas of the city are still stand­ing but de­serted af­ter res­i­dents fled. Author­i­ties es­ti­mate around 100 to 120 fight­ers, some of them as young as 16 years, re­main holed up in the com­mer­cial district of the city, down from around 500 at the be­gin­ning of the siege. The fight­ers are hold­ing around 100 hostages, ac­cord­ing to the mil­i­tary, who have been forced to act as hu­man shields, take up arms or be­come sex slaves.

Mil­i­tary air­craft drop bombs on the mil­i­tant zone al­most ev­ery day. From the out­skirts of the city, mor­tar teams take aim at what they call “ground zero”, the heart of the con­flict. “Mor­tars are de­signed to tar­get peo­ple and smaller ar­eas than the airstrikes.” said mor­tar spe­cial­ist Sgt. Jef­fery Bay­bayan, as he jot­ted down co­or­di­nates that come crack­ling over a ra­dio from an ob­server closer to the con­flict area. “Hit­ting tar­gets ac­cu­rately can be dif­fi­cult and we’re ex­pend­ing rounds with­out hit­ting tar­gets. We are con­cerned about our own troops that are very close to the en­emy area,” he added, as the mor­tars ex­ploded in the city, send­ing up plumes of thick black smoke.

Sur­ren­der now or die

Dur­ing the day’s bat­tle, Tam­pus re­ceived re­ports that three civil­ians, trapped for weeks near the fight­ing, were try­ing to es­cape. Sev­eral sol­diers re­sponded to help res­cue them - mov­ing to the area in two lines along the sides of streets to avoid sniper fire. Three civil­ians - two men and a woman us­ing a walk­ing stick came out and sat by the side of the street once they were in the mil­i­tary zone. “The bombs were so fre­quent com­ing from both sides,” said Jose Lo­canas, a 53-year-old Chris­tian man trapped with his wife and friend in his house. “We were caught in the mid­dle.”

Troops said they re­ceived word from their rel­a­tives that the three were trapped and man­aged to es­cort them out. More than 400 peo­ple, in­clud­ing over 300 mil­i­tants, 82 se­cu­rity forces and 44 civil­ians are known to have died in Marawi. Some of the bod­ies of civil­ians were found de­cap­i­tated and the mil­i­tary has warned the num­ber of res­i­dents killed by rebel “atroc­i­ties” could rise sharply as troops re­take more ground.

Ev­ery day, troops make an­nounce­ments through loud­speak­ers for the mil­i­tants to “sur­ren­der now or die”. To the trapped civil­ians, they of­fer help to get out of the con­flict area. Author­i­ties say they be­lieve the mil­i­tants are run­ning out of sup­plies and am­mu­ni­tion, but they say there is no dead­line to re­take the city. Tam­pus, the of­fi­cer, said when troops re­in­force­ments come into Marawi, they are ini­tially ap­pre­hen­sive be­cause of the high death toll. “But once they are here, the dis­ci­pline kicks in and they are fo­cused,” he said.—Reuters


MANILA: Photo shows the dead body of Valien Men­doza, a sus­pected drug dealer, gunned down by uniden­ti­fied as­sailants in Manila.

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