Philippine Forces Battle IS-Linked Militants for Third Day in Marawi

Richel Umel, Jeoffrey Maitem, Froilan Gallardo and Mark Navales
2017.05.25
Marawi, Philippines
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170525-PH-Marawi-1000 Troops search a man in the besieged city of Marawi in the southern Philippines, May 25, 2017.
Richel V. Umel/Benar News

Updated at 8:12 a.m. ET on 2017-05-26

Philippine government troops found themselves in a deadly cat-and-mouse chase Thursday as they tried to flush out Islamic State-linked militants who were holding hostages while controlling parts of the southern city of Marawi during a third straight day of fighting.

Six soldiers were killed Thursday during pitched battles to wrest pockets of the city on Mindanao island away from Abu Sayyaf Group militants, who were backed up by members of the Maute group and holding several hostages including a Catholic priest, according to Philippine military officials and eyewitness accounts by BenarNews correspondents.

Eighteen gunmen were killed on the militant side during Thursday’s action, the military said, and there were also reports of some civilian deaths.

The half-dozen soldiers were killed as they clashed with around 30 heavily armed militants while trying to clear two bridges in Marawi, Brig. Gen. Rolly Bautista said in a statement issued late Thursday.

“Our troops are doing deliberate operations in areas we believe are still occupied or infested with the terrorist's presence,” he said, adding, “I specifically ordered our soldiers to locate and destroy these terrorists as soon as possible.”

According to figures from the military, a total of 31 suspected militants and 13 Philippine security personnel have died in three days of fighting since Tuesday, when government forces launched an operation to capture Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon – also known as the alleged chief of the Philippine affiliate of Islamic State – after reports emerged that he had been spotted in Marawi.

The situation in the city prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law across Mindanao and cut short a trip to Russia this week in order to return home to deal with the crisis.

According to a report in The Star newspaper, which cited intelligence sources, two of the militants killed Thursday were identified as Malaysian nationals Abdurahman Asmawi and Kamsa Yahya. An Indonesian citizen, Shei Ayman Marjuki, was also among the dead suspects, the report said.

Largely deserted

On Thursday, empty stores and establishments in the city appeared to have been hastily abandoned by their owners, as only a few of Marawi’s 200,000 residents remained. Some of the residents clambered onto rooftops to watch smoke engulf a target near the city hall, as witnessed by BenarNews correspondents.

Scattered explosions and bursts of gunfire could be heard at a distance. The army said that the armed men had disbanded into smaller groups in a desperate attempt to flee.

“The terrorists are not very fixed, and they are moving around so our armed forces too need to reposition,” said Lt. Col. Joar Herrera, a local military spokesman. “Our troops need to move constantly to outmaneuver the terrorist group.”

“They are desperate. That is why they are trying to distract the focus of our military,” he said, adding that assault operations were focused on three villages where the gunmen are believed to be holding out. From an initial number of about 100 fighters, the rebel force is now down to just about 40. The rest apparently have managed to escape.

As soldiers moved around to pluck out residents trapped inside their homes, rebel snipers were seen shooting from a distance.

Officials said militants were still holding a priest and three other civilians hostage.

The military said it had also received reports that several civilians had been killed, but this could not be immediately verified.

Herrera said Isnilon Hapilon was believed to still be trapped in the area, describing the enemy movement as “very fluid.”

“We identified targets that we need to clear. We need to neutralize the remnants of this local terrorist group so we are using combined arms to include armor assets of the infantry, special operations units and other army capabilities,” he said.

The gunmen also briefly took over a power station in the area, but later left, Herrera said.

The fighting caught the government by surprise, causing President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law in Mindanao.

On Wednesday, he raised the prospect that IS-linked rebels could gain a foothold in the north of the country, and warned of expanding military rule to cover the entire country as well.

The development has worried many rights group who warned that it would be a throwback to a brutal form of martial law that covered the country during the dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos.

“If I think that you should die, you will die,” Duterte warned Wednesday. “If you fight us, you will die. If there is open defiance, you will die. And if it means many people dying, so be it.”

He was to hold a closed door cabinet meeting with his secretaries Thursday to discuss the attack.

Infantry armored personnel carriers move out in Marawi City to support troops locked in gun battles with Islamic State-inspired Abu Sayyaf and Maute group militants, May 25, 2017. (Richel V. Umel / Benar News)

US, Malaysia react

Meanwhile, the United States on Thursday said it backed the Philippine military assault on Marawi.

“The United States condemns the recent violence perpetrated by an ISIS-linked terrorist group in the southern Philippines,” the White House said in a statement, referring to IS by another acronym.

It said Washington would continue to give support and assistance for Philippine counterterrorism efforts.

In neighboring Malaysia, Sabah Police Commissioner Ramli Din said security forces there were told to be “high alert” to thwart any infiltration of militants who might try to escape and infiltrate the state.

“Security forces in the east coast of Sabah were already prepared for any eventuality following the declaration of martial law in Mindanao by the Philippine government,” Ramli said. “So far the situation is under control.”

Maritime police from both nations met today at a ship on the sea border, off the Philippine island of Tawi-Tawi and eastern Malaysia's Lahad Datu.

The meeting “was intended to exchange information on the current situation in the southern Philippines including increased patrol and control in the water of both countries,” said Ahmad Arafin, the commanding officer of the Malaysian Maritime Police.

Philippine militants are known to cross over to Sabah. Four years ago, more than 50 Filipinos belonging to a group of followers by a Philippine sultan were killed in a clash after they landed in Sabah in a bid to enforce a claim to the Malaysian state.

Colin Forsythe in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia contributed to this report.

An earlier version contained a wrong caption for the second photo.

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