MARAWI CITY • The general leading an offensive against pro-ISIS militants in a southern Philippine town has been relieved of his command, an army spokesman said yesterday, the 11th day of the country's biggest security crisis in years.
The removal of Brigadier-General Nixon Fortes as commander of the army brigade in Marawi City and his replacement by his deputy, Colonel Generoso Ponio, was not related to the battle that has raged in the city, said the spokesman.
Asked if the course of the conflict was the reason for Brig-Gen Fortes' replacement, the army spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Ray Tiongson, said: "That's not the reason."
Brig-Gen Fortes became commander of the 103rd Brigade in January and oversaw a series of operations to disrupt the Maute, a group that swore allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and later laid siege to Marawi City.
A military source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Brig-Gen Fortes was dismissed because not all his forces were in the city when the rebels began their rampage, even though military intelligence indicated that Islamist militants, including foreign fighters, were amassing there.
The source said some of Brig-Gen Fortes' forces were busy fighting a small band of communist insurgents in a nearby town when some 400 militants overran Marawi City on May 23, after a botched military raid to capture their leader Isnilon Hapilon.
Thirty-nine members of the security forces have been killed in the Marawi City battles, as well as 19 civilians and 120 rebel fighters.
A military source... said Brigadier-General Nixon Fortes was dismissed because not all his forces were in the city when the rebels began their rampage, even though military intelligence had indicated that Islamist militants, including foreign fighters, were amassing there.
Yesterday, Philippine planes dropped bombs and helicopters delivered rockets on militants' fortified positions. Several buildings were also set alight as the military tried to flush out about 100 fighters to meet a deadline set by Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to re-take the city of 200,000 people by the end of the day.
"I don't think we can meet the deadline to completely free Marawi of every single armed element on every street," military spokesman Restituto Padilla told reporters. "We're working and doing our best to accomplish this mission."
Brig-Gen Padilla said operations were slow because militants had taken civilians as hostages, and were using women and children as human shields in fortified commercial buildings in the city centre.
Yesterday, two OV-10 close-air support aircraft resumed bomb runs, circling the city and diving steeply before dropping their ordnance. On Wednesday, smaller SF-260 planes accidentally dropped a payload on ground troops, killing 10 and wounding seven. The military said it was an accident of the sort that sometimes happens in the "fog of war".
While civilians are endangered by the air strikes, the military believes that the hits are essential to a quick victory, with at least 2,000 people trapped by the fighting and fast running out of food and water.
Militant snipers on top of buildings have forced the military to rely on air power, said Lt-Col Jo-Ar Herrera, the military's spokesman in Marawi, on Thursday. "A sniper on a building can pin down all the troops, so one way to neutralise that is to use precision air strikes."
Yesterday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) raised the problem of decomposing bodies, noting that only 19 bodies have been recovered since the conflict began. "There are a lot of dogs hunting around town. They are starving. They are eating the bodies," said ICRC's Mindanao sub-delegation head Roberto Petronio. "We warned the authorities that there is a risk of an outbreak of rabies."