City girds for protracted battle
MARAWI: Islamist militants holed up in a southern Philippines town stocked weapons and food in mosques, tunnels and basements to prepare for a long siege, officials said on Monday as the battle for control of Marawi came to the end of its second week.
Their comments underlined the level of organisation among fighters linked to the Islamic State (IS), whose ranks of several hundred included foreigners from Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya and Morocco.
The battle for Marawi has raised concerns that the ultra-radical IS is building a Southeast Asia base on the island of Mindanao.
Parrying questions on why the fighters had been able to resist an onslaught from the Philippines army for so long, senior officers said the main problem was that 500-600 civilians were still trapped in the city centre.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte said on Saturday that Marawi would be fully liberated within three days, but officials were yesterday more circumspect on the timing and gave conflicting estimates of how many combatants were holding out.
Maj Gen Carlito Galvez, head of the military command in Western Mindanao region, said as many as 200 fighters from the Maute militant group and others were still inside the town, and had made preparations in advance for a drawn-out standoff.
“In houses we take over, we see .50 calibre, .30 calibre, and the ammunitions are huge. And the Maute, even if they fight two months they will not starve here,” he told a news conference.
“If you look at it, there are underground tunnels and basements that even a 500-pounder cannot destroy.”
He said that days before seizing Marawi the militants placed supplies in mosques and madrasas, the religious schools of a city whose population is overwhelmingly Muslim in a country where the majority is Christian.
The area of the town occupied by the militants had shrunk to less than 10%, military spokesman Brig Gen Restituto Padilla said, adding that the army was pressing on to meet Mr Duterte’s deadline but it was not easy.
“Complications have been coming out: the continued use of civilians, potential hostages that may still be in their hands, the use of places of worship ... and other factors that complicates the battle because of its urban terrain,” he said.
A four-hour ceasefire to evacuate residents was marred by gunfire on Sunday, leaving hundreds of civilians who had hoped to flee the fighting stuck in their homes.
Mr Padilla said that 1,467 civilians had been rescued so far, and the 500-600 still trapped were low on food and water.