Philippine Military Defends Security Lockdown in Marawi

Mark Navales, Jeoffrey Maitem and Richel V. Umel
2017.06.16
Marawi, Philippines
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170616-Marawi-620.jpg Troops advance into an area controlled by Islamic State-linked militants in the southern Philippine city of Marawi, June 16, 2017.
Mark Navales/BenarNews

The Philippine government on Friday defended its security clampdown in the southern city of Marawi, where military forces have been battling Islamic State-inspired militants who still control a small portion of the city’s lakeshore area.

Aid convoys going into the ravaged city have also been advised instead to coordinate with local government officials overseeing humanitarian assistance, military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said.

Padilla said the situation remained volatile, amid sketchy reports that about 300 militants have been spotted in the outskirts of nearby Lanao del Norte province. Military officials said that the militants may be trying to enter other urban areas.

“We are not denying that there may be (militants) who have slipped with evacuees who fled Marawi going to other places,” Padilla said. “So these individuals may have gone through.”

The Philippine military has been trying for 25 days to unshackle Marawi from the tight grip of about 200 local extremists, who are backed by fighters from Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and other countries.

The vicious fighting that included aerial bombings by the Philippine military has alarmed governments across Southeast Asia, with officials expressing fears that the ultra-radical IS might set up a stronghold in Mindanao, potentially threatening the region.

As of Friday, the fighting has killed 225 gunmen, 59 government troops and more than 20 civilians, according to government figures.

Padilla said tighter security measures were necessary to prevent unintended harm to civilians, citing Thursday’s incident involving an Australian journalist who was hit in the neck by a wayward bullet. The journalist was evacuated but his injury was not life threatening.

Padilla also said security forces were placed under heightened alert in the nearby cities of Iligan and Cagayan de Oro “to check and to watch closely any possible movements of suspicious persons, so that communities remain safe.”

Clashes flared up on May 23 when troops and police moved to arrest Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, the acknowledged head of the Islamic State in the predominantly Catholic Philippines. But they were met by a big force of gunmen composed of militants from the Maute group, backed by an undetermined number of foreign fighters.

What followed was an explosion of violence that saw the gunmen reduce the previously unknown but scenic city into rubble. The militants were also reported to have gone on a house–to-house hunting spree to kill Christians in Marawi, a Muslim trading hub.

President Rodrigo Duterte has placed the entire southern region of Mindanao under military rule.

Duterte’s government has also been forced to ask for intelligence help from the U.S. military, an embarrassing turn of events after the president has repeatedly lambasted Washington to curry favor from rival China and Russia.

Hundreds of civilians are believed still trapped inside the areas controlled by the militants.

Amid reports that rebel reinforcement could try to breach nearby areas, civilian armed groups have sought permission from the authorities to allow them to help.

"We are ready because all civilian groups, particularly the gun holders associations, were tapped to prevent militants from launching attacks in the city," said Jose Pantoja, a spokesman for nearby Lanao del Norte province.

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