Philippine army ‘close to retaking’ militantheld city
MARAWI (Philippines) — The Philippine military said yesterday it was close to retaking a southern city held for a seventh day by Islamist militants, as helicopters unleashed more rockets on positions held by the rebels aligned with Islamic State.
The occupation of Marawi city by the Maute, a group hardly heard of a year ago, has become the biggest security challenge of Rodrigo Duterte’s 11month presidency, with gunmen resisting air and ground assaults and controlling central parts of a city of 200 000 people.
The military said the rebels may be getting help from “sympathetic elements” and fighters they had freed from jail during the rampage that started last Tuesday and caught the military by surprise.
“Our ground commanders have assured that the end is almost there,” military spokesperson Restituto Padilla told reporters. “We’re trying to isolate all these pockets of resistance.”
More than 100 people have been killed, most of them militants, according to the military, and most of the city’s residents have fled.
The military said the Maute group was still present in nine of the city’s 96 barangays, or communities.
The Maute’s ability to fight off the military for so long will add to fears that Islamic State’s radical ideology is spreading in the southern Philippines and it could become a haven for mili tants from Southeast Asia and beyond. Malaysians and Indonesians were among the rebels killed.
The government believes the Maute carried out their assault before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan to capture the attention of Islamic State and earn recognition as a regional affiliate.
According to witnesses, men with black headbands typical of Islamic State have been seen on city streets in recent days. A photograph taken by a resident shows 10 men carrying assault rifles and dressed entirely in black.
Some troops tried to eliminate Maute snipers yesterday as others guarded deserted streets, taken back block by block.
Helicopters circled the lakeside city and smoke poured out of some buildings. Artillery explosions echoed.
Sixtyone militants, 20 members of the security forces and 19 civilians have been killed since last Tuesday, when Maute rebels went on the rampage after a botched military operation to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, who the government believes is a point man for Islamic State in the Philippines. — Reuters.