Mil­i­tants cling on to build­ings in be­sieged South­ern Philip­pine city

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Is­lamist gun­men led by one of the world’s most wanted ter­ror­ists still hold about 1,500 build­ings in a south­ern Philip­pine city af­ter weeks of fe­ro­cious fight­ing that has left hun­dreds dead, of­fi­cials said yes­ter­day. The Philip­pine mil­i­tary has strug­gled to ex­pel scores of gun­men who ram­paged across Marawi city on May 23 fly­ing the black flag of the Is­lamic State group, de­spite day and night ar­tillery and air strikes that have re­duced swathes of the down­town area to rub­ble.

Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte last month vowed to “crush” the mil­i­tants, but sev­eral dead­lines have al­ready been missed to end a con­flict that has left scores dead and forced some 400,000 peo­ple from their homes. The gun­men are led by Is­nilon Hapi­lon, one of the world’s most wanted men, who is be­lieved to be still alive and holed up in a mosque, De­fense Sec­re­tary Delfin Loren­zana told a news con­fer­ence in Manila.

In the most de­tailed as­sess­ment yet, he con­ceded there was no say­ing when sol­diers would be able to re­take all 1,500 houses and build­ings still held or booby­trapped by the mil­i­tants. “Since it is ur­ban fight­ing a lot of our troops there are not pre­pared. One can say they are learn­ing as they fight in this built-up area,” he said, adding that sol­diers are bat­tling street-to-street re­tak­ing up to a hun­dred build­ings a day. The mil­i­tary in Marawi sug­gested a slower rate, with sol­diers re­cap­tur­ing 40 build­ings on Satur­day and 57 on Sun­day.

“The clear­ing op­er­a­tion is dif­fi­cult be­cause of the pres­ence of IEDs (im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vices), booby traps left be­hind by the ter­ror­ists,” said the mil­i­tary spokesman for the cam­paign, Lieu­tenant-Colonel Jo-ar Her­rera. Eighty-two sol­diers and po­lice and 39 civil­ians have died in the weeks-long con­flict, he said. Around a hun­dred mil­i­tants are still en­trenched in the city and the army has said they have used a wa­ter route to bring in am­mu­ni­tion and evac­u­ate wounded fighters, help­ing them with­stand the mil­i­tary of­fen­sive for weeks. Some 300 gun­men are thought to have been killed so far.

Loren­zana said mil­i­tary com­man­ders wanted a swift end to the op­er­a­tion, “but the en­emy is also very wily and re­source­ful”. Duterte im­posed martial law over the south­ern Philip­pines soon af­ter the fight­ing started, say­ing he needed strong pow­ers to snuff out an IS plot to carve out ter­ri­tory af­ter bat­tle­field losses in Iraq and Syria. A botched gov­ern­ment at­tempt to ar­rest Hapi­lon at a Marawi hide­out touched off the fight­ing in May. He is sup­ported by Marawibased gun­men led by the Maute broth­ers, whose group has pledged al­le­giance to IS, as well as sev­eral for­eign fighters, Loren­zana said. —AFP

MARAWI, Philip­pines: Smoke bil­lows from burn­ing houses as fight­ing be­tween gov­ern­ment troops and Is­lamist mil­i­tants con­tin­ues in Marawi on the south­ern is­land of Min­danao yes­ter­day. —AFP

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