Updated at 9:26 p.m. ET on 2017-08-09
Vicious fighting in the southern Philippine city of Marawi entered its 79th day with the death toll topping 700, as government troops kept battling on Wednesday to push out Islamic State-backed militants, officials said.
As of Tuesday evening (local time), 122 troops had been reported killed along with 539 Abu Sayyaf and Maute gunmen since hostilities broke out on May 23, military spokeswoman Capt. Jo-an Petinglay said.
Forty-five civilians had also died, while more than 1,700 others were rescued from the battle zone. But the gunmen could still be holding up to 70 hostages, she said.
“Fighting continues in about a square kilometer general area where the terrorists are currently holed up,” Petinglay told reporters as sporadic bursts of gunfire could be heard in the distance.
Four civilians who claimed to have escaped from the fighters were picked up by troops on Aug. 4 near a lakeside area, Petinglay said.
The civilians were from the city of Zamboanga, about 272 km (169 miles) southwest of Marawi. They were still being questioned by the military about how they ended up in the Marawi area, so far from home.
“Their families in Zamboanga City coordinated with the Philippine Navy. There was a close coordination made by the wife of one of the civilians to our Navy in Zamboanga and eventually coordination with the units under us,” Petinglay said.
“On guidance [from] our troops, they swam the lake to reach the nearest Army troops waiting for them,” she added.
Petinglay said the rescued civilians appeared “healthy and unharmed,” although traumatized by their ordeal. They were brought to an army base for medical attention.
Their debriefing included a paraffin test to determine whether they had fired a gun, according to Petinglay. It was not immediately clear why the rescued men had to undergo this test, considering that the military had said that they were former hostages.
At the same time, Petinglay said, a blue armored vehicle with the word “DASIA” printed in front, was recovered by soldiers last week in one of the structures being cleared in the main battle area.
A vehicle of a similar make had been commandeered when the gunmen took over the city, and was used to protect rebel fighters mobilized against the government.
A propaganda photograph that appeared on the Internet showed a van of the same make carrying Abdullah Maute, one of the leaders of the rebel. A black Islamic State (IS) flag could be seen fluttering from its front.
The vehicle was retrieved in a building used by the gunmen as a temporary storage area where their wounded were taken. Inside the structure was a tunnel where, according to the military, the enemy fighters had hidden food supplies and weapons.
Meanwhile, International Alert Philippines, a non-governmental organization, called on President Rodrigo Duterte to begin a nationwide “capture, inventory and immediate destruction of illegal guns, starting in Mindanao.
Duterte placed the entire southern region under military rule in a bid to quell the fighting in Marawi. But he has failed to quickly contain the fighting, citing superior firepower by the rebels.
Duterte has been forced to accept help from the United States and Australia, which are providing intelligence back up to the troops. Neighbors Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have also offered counter-terrorism help, saying they fear the spread of IS in the region.
Statistics from International Alert reveal that in 2014, there were an estimated 3.9 firearms in the hands of the public, about half of which were illegal. In contrast, it said the armed forces as well as the police form possess less than a million guns.
“Martial law presents a unique window of opportunity to get rid of illegal guns and reduce the possibility of these being recycled within the shadow economy,” said International Alert consultant Ed Quitoriano.
The weapons to be collected from Marawi and other areas in Mindanao should be transferred to a central storage, and immediately destroyed, he said.
“State forces are clearly outgunned,” Quitoriano said. “The sheer number of illicit weapons poses a serious challenge to the government’s monopoly of the use of force to protect its citizens. This is a problem that can no longer be ignored.”
Armored military vehicles arrive at the port of Iligan City to reinforce troops fighting Islamic State-linked militants in nearby Marawi, Aug. 2, 2017. [Richel V. Umel/BenarNews]
An earlier version gave wrong information about where four civilians who claimed to have escaped from IS fighters were found.