Philippine forces adopt strategy of destroying Marawi to save it

Above: A The commercial area of Osmena Street in Marawi yesterday. As the siege of the southern Philippine city enters its fourth week, more than 200 people have been killed and much of the city lies in ruins.
The commercial area of Osmena Street in Marawi yesterday. As the siege of the southern Philippine city enters its fourth week, more than 200 people have been killed and much of the city lies in ruins.PHOTO: REUTERS
Above: A The commercial area of Osmena Street in Marawi yesterday. As the siege of the southern Philippine city enters its fourth week, more than 200 people have been killed and much of the city lies in ruins.
A soldier taking aim at militant positions from a rooftop in Marawi. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Above: A The commercial area of Osmena Street in Marawi yesterday. As the siege of the southern Philippine city enters its fourth week, more than 200 people have been killed and much of the city lies in ruins.
A rebel fighter. PHOTO: REUTERS

Military conducts bombing runs twice a day as rebels dig in

MANILA • Black smoke billows behind lush palm groves. Tanks rumble past graceful minarets. Bullets rain on empty streets.

As the siege of the southern Philippine city of Marawi enters its fourth week, more than 200 people have lost their lives and much of the city lies in ruins.

The strongest attempt yet by supporters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to seize and hold territory in South-east Asia has turned into an urban street fight in what is now largely a ghost town.

Hastily closed businesses bear signs reading "looters will be shot". Stray dogs scavenge for food on deserted streets. A light rain on Tuesday added to the feeling of despair.

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The Philippine military appears to have adopted a strategy of destroying the city to save it, conducting bombing runs at least twice a day.

The rebels are holding on to a piece of the city centre, controlling checkpoints on several bridges and planting well-armed snipers in some of the city's mosques. Hundreds of civilians are believed to be in their midst, making the government assault more difficult.

 

Each side claims to have the other boxed in; both seem to be digging in for a protracted battle.

URBAN WARFARE

It's urban warfare, face-to-face combat. They are still holding out. The fighting is house to house, building by building.

LIEUTENANT-COLONEL CHRISTOPHER TAMPUS, an infantry battalion commander at the front, on the battle to recapture the southern Philippine city of Marawi.

Marawi, a city of 200,000, sits on the shore of Lake Lanao on the southern island of Mindanao. The Agus River, which flows from the lake, divides the city.

The militants still hold the part of the city south-east of the river that was once the economic and business centre. The heaviest fighting is concentrated there in an area of about 500 sq m,, a military commander said.

Rebel snipers are positioned in the taller buildings, forcing Philippine troops to maintain their distance. The military said the rebels control a fifth of the city.

"It's urban warfare, face-to-face combat," said Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Tampus, an infantry battalion commander at the front line. "They are still holding out. The fighting is house to house, building by building."

The Philippine military controls the skies and has been using helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft to bombard the city, inflicting heavy damage but failing to drive out the militants so far.

Marawi is the largest predominantly Muslim city in a country that is more than 90 per cent Roman Catholic. Some of the city's most notable buildings are mosques.

The military says militants are using mosques and religious schools as bases for fighting, including for placement of sniper nests; soldiers cannot attack these buildings because they are protected as cultural monuments.

The militants are a combined force of two Islamist insurgencies.

Their leader is Isnilon Hapilon, designated by ISIS as its emir in South-east Asia. He leads a faction of Abu Sayyaf, a decades-old militant group best known for taking foreign hostages. Hapilon is also on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's list of most-wanted terrorists, and the United States has offered a US$5 million (S$7 million) bounty for his capture.

Hapilon has banded with the Maute group, led by the brothers Abdullah and Omarkhayam Maute. Educated in the Middle East, they are said to have sworn allegiance to Hapilon.

The fight for Marawi represents the first time the Maute and Hapilon groups have teamed up for such a major operation. The authorities say they have also been joined by fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Chechnya.

As the battle rages on, ISIS has posted videos, said to be from Marawi, promoting the rebels' narrative that they are winning and that the Philippine army had "completely failed" to retake the city.

The most recent clip, released on Monday, shows men firing weapons from buildings interspersed with scenes of Marawi. It ends with a graphic execution in which six men in orange shirts and handcuffs are made to kneel and are then machine-gunned from the back.

Mr Zia Alonto Adiong, a military spokesman in Marawi, said the scenes of militants firing weapons "appear to be (in) Marawi", but that the executions do not. He could not confirm the location of the execution footage.

The video also claims that more than 200 Philippine soldiers have been killed, and that the militants have seized weapons left behind by retreating government forces.

The Philippine military said the government has lost 58 soldiers and police officers, and that it is boxing in the rebels.

The military yesterday also said that US troops are on the ground near Marawi but are not involved in fighting. It earlier said the US was providing technical assistance, but had no boots on the ground.

It was not clear how close to the battle zone the US troops were. The soldiers are from a contingent of Special Forces based in the southern city of Zamboanga, the Philippines military previously said.

NYTIMES, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 15, 2017, with the headline 'Philippine forces adopt strategy of destroying Marawi to save it'. Print Edition | Subscribe