Philippine troops killed 10 militants Monday as they tried to reinforce their embattled Islamic State-linked colleagues in the southern city of Marawi, the military said.
The encounter happened weeks after Islamic States leaders called on fighters in Southeast Asia to travel to Marawi and help their colleagues who have laid siege to Marawi since May 23, the military said.
Leading the fight in Marawi is Abu Sayyaf commander Isnilon Hapilon, the so-called “emir” of the IS in the Philippines, backed by the local Maute group and several militants from around the region and the Middle East.
Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez, the local military chief, said the reinforcements were spotted trying to sneak into Marawi aboard two motorized boats before dawn Monday.
It sparked a three-hour fire fight, leaving 10 militants dead.
"Let this be a warning to those who have the intention to escape and to enter, our troops are ready for you. We will get definitely get you,” Galvez said.
He said the military believed that more militants could have been slain, but it could not be ascertained because their bodies have not yet been found.
“One of the pump boats was also seen sinking during the pursuit operation. Patrolling soldiers and policemen are still looking for the dead bodies and sunken boat,” Galvez said.
He said troops were tipped off that the rebels would try to sneak in fighters to aid those still trapped in Marawi’s central area, after the military campaign last week forced the rebels out of a strategic mosque in what is considered a victory of sorts for the government.
But troops did not locate dozens of hostages held by the gunmen, who are believed to be using them as “human shields.”
Marawi is virtually a ghost town in ruins since militants engaged in clashes with troops and forced more than 200,000 civilian residents to flee their homes and seek temporary shelter in evacuation sites scattered across several nearby towns and provinces.
Since the fighting erupted, at least 130 troops have been reported killed along with 603 enemy fighters. 45 civilians have died, while more than 1,728 others were rescued from the battle zone.
Latest intelligence information states that the enemy force has shrunk to about 40 fighters from more than 600 when hostilities broke out.
Islamic, Christian sites ‘desecrated’
Capt. Jo-ann Petinglay, the local task force spokeswoman, said soldiers had recovered some 1,270 improvised bombs left behind by the gunmen as booby traps in areas that they had abandoned.
She said that apart from Marawi’s grand mosque recovered days earlier, troops had also retaken St Mary’s Cathedral, a Catholic church in downtown Marawi, from the gunmen.
The troops also discovered that enemy fighters had dug a tunnel inside the mosque where they hid their ammunition, she said.
"We have seen how these terrorists have desecrated both the Islamic Center and the St Mary's Cathedral. This only shows how these people do not respect any religion may it be Christian or Muslim,” Galvez said.
"We abhor the acts of the terrorists and we know that they will never have a place anywhere in the world,” he added.
President Rodrigo Duterte, who has admitted to underestimating the firepower of the militants, has placed the entire south under military rule until December.
He has also sought intelligence help from the United States and Australia, while regional neighbors Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have also offered closer counter-terrorism cooperation to stop the flow of militants across borders.
On Thursday, Duterte visited the frontline and vowed the campaign would be relentless until the last militant was killed.
“We have to end it the way it should be and we will not stop until the last terrorist is neutralized. That is the ultimate objective,” the president said.