100 Days In, Philippine Military Enters Militant Stronghold in Marawi

Froilan Gallardo, Jeoffrey Maitem and Richel V. Umel
Marawi, Philippines
170830-PH-advance-620.JPG Philippine troops cross the Mapandi bridge as the government moves to retake Marawi city from militants linked to the Islamic State, Aug. 30, 2017.
Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews

Philippine security forces launched a final push Wednesday, 100 days after fighting broke out, to retake the war-ravaged southern city of Marawi from militants linked to the Islamic State (IS).

A column of tanks rolled in over Mapandi bridge, considered the gateway to Marawi city proper, leading dozens of troops in full combat gear into neighborhoods long held by the gunmen.

Loud explosions and exchange of gunfire could be heard at the distance, as military ambulances wailed in the background to take wounded soldiers to safety.

Days earlier, the military pushed the militants from the main mosque in the area and from a strategic police station where they had been holding out since taking over much of Marawi on May 23.

“We cannot say how many days we can finish the fight, but as far as we are concerned, we are only about 500 meters to the lake from this point,” Gen. Milquiades Ordiales, commander of the 1st Marine Brigade, told reporters who were allowed to cross the bridge for the first time since fighting erupted.

Ordiales said the militants – led by Abu Sayyaf commander Isnilon Hapilon, the acknowledged IS leader in the Philippines, and backed by the local Maute militant group and foreign fighters from Southeast Asia and the Middle East – were fighting back.

“We are on the last and final push. The gun fire is normal here every day because every inch we take, the enemies resist,” he said.

‘Two months to reach this bridge’

Ordiales described Mapandi bridge as a critical infrastructure where the military could block the militants’ supply route. Earlier, a contingent of marines died during an intense battle to retake the structure.

Not far from the bridge, houses belonging to some of Marawi’s affluent businessmen have been destroyed. Black smoke rose from structures in the distance.

Military spokeswoman Capt. Jo-ann Petinglay reported heavy fighting in Banggolo, Marawi’s commercial district, only two blocks from the Mapandi bridge.

“Some sniper rifles can reach up to two kilometers,” she said.

Soldiers tried to block militants from tracking their movements by installing a large blue tarpaulin spanning the bridge. Sentries fired rounds into militant positions after receiving coordinates from drones flying overhead.

“All our logistic supplies run through here. It’s very important for us to get this bridge so that our supplies will reach the front line,” Ordiales said.

“You know, from the start, we took about two months to reach this bridge.  Upon reaching the area, it took us one week to cross this street and we have so many casualties,” he said.

In Manila, military chief Gen. Eduardo Ano said soldiers had encircled the terrorists.

“Our main goal is no way in and no way out for them,” Ano said.

Since the start of the fighting, 617 enemy fighters and 133 soldiers have died along with 45 civilians, according to the government.

Military officials said they do not know how many hostages are being held, although President Rodrigo Duterte earlier estimated the gunmen were holding as many as 300 people.

Neighbors Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore offered anti-terror cooperation to prevent the flow of militants across their borders following calls from IS-linked propaganda media for fighters from around the region to travel to Marawi. The United States and Australia have provided intelligence support to the government troops.

Brig. Gen. Rolando Joselito Bautista, commander of the military’s 1st Division, said more than 600 soldiers who were wounded had gone back to the frontline.

“They don’t want to just stay at the hospital. They want to take part in liberating Marawi,” said Bautista, who was also in Mapandi.


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