MARAWI CITY • Philippine aircraft and troops launched a renewed push against Islamist militants in a southern city yesterday, and a military spokesman said the aim was to clear the area by the weekend Hari Raya festival, although there was no deadline.
The offensive came amid worry that rebel reinforcements could arrive in the city after Hari Raya Puasa, which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Fighting in Marawi city has entered a fifth week, and nearly 350 people have been killed, according to an official count. Fleeing residents said they have seen scores of bodies in the debris of homes destroyed in the bombing.
"We are aiming to clear Marawi by the end of Ramadan," said military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, as army and police commanders met in nearby Cagayan de Oro city to reassess strategy and operations against the militants, who claim allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
However, he added: "We are not setting any deadlines knowing the complexity of the battle. We are doing our best to expedite the liberation of Marawi at the soonest time possible."
The seizure of Marawi and the dogged fight to regain control of it has alarmed South-east Asian nations which fear ISIS - on the back foot in Iraq and Syria - is trying to set up a stronghold in the southern Philippines that could threaten the whole region.
Brig-Gen Padilla said the military aims to prevent the conflict from escalating after Ramadan ends.
Some Muslim residents of Marawi said other groups could join the fighting after Ramadan. "As devout Muslims, we are forbidden to fight during Ramadan. So afterwards, there may be new groups coming in," said Mr Faisal Amir, who has stayed on in the city despite the battle.
Yesterday, planes flew overhead, dropping bombs while on the ground, automatic gunfire was sustained with occasional blasts from bombs and artillery. Armoured vehicles fired volleys of shells while the militants responded with gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades.
President Rodrigo Duterte yesterday apologised for the military offensive that has left Marawi, the Philippines' main Muslim city in ruins, but said it was needed to crush the militants.
Mr Duterte also vowed that United States-backed air strikes on Marawi would continue.
"I am very, very, very sorry that this happened to us. I hope that soon you will find it in your heart to forgive my soldiers and government and even me," Mr Duterte said in a speech at an evacuation centre near Marawi for people who have fled the fighting.
REUTERS AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE