Philippine troops are close to retaking the entire southern city of Marawi, with Islamic State-linked militants believed to be cornered within two neighborhood blocks, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Friday.
He declined to give a definite timeline, saying that three previous deadlines he had set were not achieved. But, he said, troops were “doing their best” to liberate Marawi, the country’s only Muslim city, which has become a wasteland of pockmarked buildings and ruined homes amid a battle that has lasted almost four months.
“There’s only little resistance left. This is just one-half village wide. That’s why I’ve been told my ground commanders that the end is near,” Lorenzana told reporters. “Just a little more patience.”
He said that apart from the United States, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, which have been helping with intelligence gathering and counter-terrorism operations, the European Union, China and Japan have also offered to assist in rehabilitating the once-scenic lakeside city.
In all, Lorenzana said, about 50 billion pesos (about U.S. $1 billion) would be needed to rebuild and rehabilitate the city, whose more than 200,000 residents abandoned it when the fighting broke out on May 23.
The defense department’s war chest would be depleted by the end of the year, with most of the money already spent on funding the campaign to win back Marawi, Lorenzana said. This year’s Philippine defense budget exceeds 130 billion pesos (U.S. $2.6 billion).
If the fighting lasted till the end of 2017, the military would face budgetary constraints, he warned. “We’d need replenishment,” Lorenzana said.
Rare access to heart of war zone
The battle began in May, when hundreds of militants led by Isnilon Hapilon, the Abu Sayyaf militant group leader and acknowledged head of the Islamic State in the Philippines, went on a rampage in Marawi.
They were backed by local fighters from the Maute group and fighters from the Middle East and Southeast Asia, making Marawi the center of gravity for IS militancy in Asia.
Fighting has been vicious, with both sides suffering heavy casualties. As of Tuesday, 666 militants, 147 soldiers and policemen and 47 civilians had been killed, making the fighting the costliest in terms of casualties in recent memory.
President Rodrigo Duterte, after admitting that the government had underestimated the militant force, put the entire southern region of Mindanao under martial law, giving the military full control over security in order to crush what he called a rebellion.
And apart from the casualties, the militants are believed to be holding dozens of hostages, whom they have been using as human shields. They have also managed to slow down the government advance by deploying snipers in strategic positions.
But the military finally dislodged the rebels from Marawi’s Grand Mosque two weeks ago, and allowed a few journalists to accompany the advancing soldiers this week.
BenarNews reporters who were on the trip reported massive destruction, and gun battles punctuated by bombs dropped by Air Force planes. The destruction was massive. The smell of death hung in the air, and dogs gnawed on human bones.
Washington, meanwhile, announced on Friday that it would conduct bilateral, inter-agency counter-terrorism drills with the Philippines in the middle of the month.
The drills, called Tempest Wind, are designed to “test and improve the ability of both nations to rapidly plan, coordinate and conduct” counter-terror operations.
The exercises are to take place locally and in Hawaii, with the drills expected to include rapid decision-making and tactical responses, the U.S. Embassy in Manila said in a statement.
“In addition to important information exchanges, Tempest Wind is recognized as a way to test force readiness and exercise interoperability,” it said. “These assessments will help to focus future bilateral training efforts to enhance the crisis response capabilities of both nations.”
The United States is already providing crucial support to Filipino forces in Marawi by gathering intelligence data and flying drones, even as its forces are not allowed to directly engage in combat.