Updated at 8:05 p.m. ET on 2017-06-10
The United States acknowledged for the first time on Saturday that its special forces were assisting Filipino soldiers locked in ferocious gunbattles with militant extremists in the southern Philippines, as local military officials said 13 Philippine Marines had died and dozens others were wounded in the latest firefight.
The Philippine military has been trying to dislodge the militants from the Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups in Marawi city since May 23 and Friday's dawn-to-dusk gunbattle, which also wounded 40 soldiers, resulted in the biggest single-day casualty suffered by the government. The seizure of Marawi by the Islamic State-inspired militants has fueled concern that the ultra-radical group is gaining foothold in Southeast Asia.
Since he took power in June last year, President Rodrigo Duterte has issued statements vowing to end a decades-old military alliance with the United States and, instead, pushed for tighter diplomatic and economic relations with China and Russia.
But on Saturday, the U.S. Embassy in Manila confirmed that the Philippines sought the aid of U.S. Special Forces in trying to solve the siege.
"At the request of the government of the Philippines, U.S. special operations forces are assisting the (Filipino military) with ongoing operations in Marawi through support that helps (its) commanders on the ground in their fight against Maute and ASG (Abu Sayyaf group) militants," the embassy said in a statement.
The embassy declined to discuss other details, citing the sensitivity of the operation.
Officials said a Philippine Marine lieutenant and 12 of his men died in the latest gunbattle Friday. The lieutenant earlier led troops in recovering more than $1 million in local currency abandoned by the militants after house-to-house combat in Marawi, a mosque-studded southern city with many buildings now reduced to rubble.
"The Marines were able to inflict heavy casualties to the terrorist group at the expense of 13 killed-in-action and 40 others wounded-in-action at raging close-quarter combat," military spokesman Col. Edgar Arevalo said.
Three weeks of fierce fighting started when Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, backed by members of the Maute group and militants from Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern countries, staged attacks in Marawi, the country's only predominantly Muslim city and home to about 200,000 people.
Hapilon is the acknowledged leader of the Islamic State in the Philippines, while the previously unknown Maute group has been blamed for a series of bombings in the restive south, including one targeting a night market in Duterte's southern hometown where 15 were killed in September.
Philippine military officials described Friday's casualties as a "temporary setback" and emphasized the government's resolve to raise Philippine flags across the city in the next few days.
Those killed included Lt. Frederick Savellano, who earlier this week led a team that recovered about 52.2 million pesos (more than $1 million) in banknotes believed left behind by the militants.
Savellano was set to marry his girlfriend who is also a Marine officer this year.
Lt. Col. Joar Herrera, the military spokesman in Marawi, said the slain Marines were after a group of gunmen holding several civilian hostages when about 40 enemy snipers, positioned at high-rise mosques, opened fire at advancing troops, triggering the battle.
The militants also placed homemade bombs in strategic areas, causing casualties, Herrera said.
Philippine military officials said the three-week gunbattle has killed at least 120 militants, 24 civilians and 58 troops, including Friday’s death toll.
Duterte's greatest test
The Marawi siege has become the greatest test for the year-old presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, who had earlier dismissed the Maute group as bandits who could be easily defeated.
He cancelled an annual gathering of foreign diplomats scheduled for Monday, the country's 119th Independence Day, to meet instead with his generals.
Meanwhile, the mother of the two main leaders of the Maute gang was arrested Friday along with nine others, including two wounded militants, in the nearby town of Masiu outside Marawi, about 1,170 km (730 miles) south of Manila, police said.
Ominta Romato Maute, also known as Farhana, was arrested while allegedly attempting to purchase vehicles and firearms to help militants escape, police said. They said troops also seized several high-powered firearms and an improvised bomb during Ominta’s arrest. Details of the arrest were not immediately available.
Ominta’s husband, Cayamora Maute, and several other companions were arrested on Tuesday while trying to enter the southern city of Davao.
Soldiers help Philippine Marines wounded in a fierce gunbattle with Islamic State-linked militants in the southern city of Marawi, June 9, 2017. [Richel V. Umel/BenarNews]
This version clarifies information in the headline.