Philippine troops press attack on Marawi militants

Smoke rising in the residential neighbourhood of Marawi city, as fighting raged on between government soldiers and the Maute militant group, on the first day of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan yesterday. About four-fifths of Marawi's population of a
Smoke rising in the residential neighbourhood of Marawi city, as fighting raged on between government soldiers and the Maute militant group, on the first day of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan yesterday. About four-fifths of Marawi's population of about 200,000 have been evacuated so far. PHOTO: REUTERS

Clashes between government forces and Muslim militants in a key southern city in the Philippines dragged on for the fifth day, on the first day of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan yesterday, as government troops pounded positions held by the militants.

"Right now, we are on the offensive, and we will try our best so we can clear Marawi city as soon as possible," said Lieutenant-General Carlito Galvez at a news briefing, adding that he hopes to achieve this goal in three days.

Government helicopter gunships yesterday used guided rockets for the first time against the militants, as truckloads of marines were seen driving into Marawi.

Security forces also dropped more bombs yesterday on targets inside the city and in the outskirts.

Lt-Gen Galvez said the Maute is still "controlling some areas".

"We need to clear those. There are areas that we still can't reach," he added, noting some 150 civilians were believed to be trapped in two "engagement areas".

Vice-governor Mamintal Bombit Alonto Adiong of Lanao del Sur, the province that covers Marawi city, said about four-fifths of Marawi's population of about 200,000 have been evacuated so far.

They evacuated civilians as the militants were burning houses. "In one of our detachments, nearly all houses have been razed in an apparent attempt to cause commotion inside the camp and overrun it," Lt-Gen Galvez said.

Gunmen from the Maute militant group had seized large parts of Marawi on Tuesday as they thwarted the government's attempt to capture Isnilon Hapilon, the most senior leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in South-east Asia. The US has offered a US$5 million (S$6.9 million) reward for his capture.

The government underestimated the militants protecting Hapilon, and the raid went awry.

The fighting led President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law for 60 days for the entire southern island group of Mindanao, where Marawi is located.

On why the fighting has dragged on, Lt-Gen Galvez said: "We have to understand the danger of urban fighting. A lone sniper can pin down an entire battalion."

But he added that operations were being stepped up, as intelligence sources might already have a lock on Hapilon's position.

Lieutenant-Colonel Jo-ar Herrera, a military spokesman, said that "it is only a matter of time before Hapilon is captured or killed".

In a development that may open another battlefront, peace talks between the government and the Communist Party of the Philippines have been suspended. The talks had been held in the Netherlands, where Communist Party founder Jose Maria Sison has been living since the 1980s.

The suspension came after the Communists, who also operate in Mindanao and see martial law as a threat, ordered their fighters to step up attacks on government troops.

Mr Jesus Dureza, the president's top peace adviser, said the government would not take part in a fifth round of peace talks till the order is withdrawn. With talks suspended, there is a risk that government troops and the communists, which had earlier declared a ceasefire, would resume fighting.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 28, 2017, with the headline 'Philippine troops press attack on Marawi militants'. Print Edition | Subscribe