Philippines marks independence day as battle rages on in Marawi

The besieged town of Marawi City celebrates independence day nearly three weeks after fighters linked to Islamic State overran the city.
Soldiers at an emotional flag-raising ceremony in Marawi yesterday, to mark the Philippines' independence day and remember those killed in the ongoing crisis there.
Soldiers at an emotional flag-raising ceremony in Marawi yesterday, to mark the Philippines' independence day and remember those killed in the ongoing crisis there.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

No end in sight to conflict as some 100 gunmen remain holed up in part of the city

Planes rained bombs on a distant target as the Philippine flag was raised in Marawi yesterday, with no end in sight yet to fierce clashes raging between government troops and Muslim militants fighting for control of this southern, lakeside city.

A small group of soldiers, rescuers and civilians sang the national anthem in a tearful flag-raising ceremony to mark the 119th year of Philippine independence at Marawi's city hall. Overhead, three OV-10 Bronco planes made bombing runs on districts where some 100 gunmen remain holed up nearly three weeks after they overran Marawi in a bid to turn it into a "province" of the ultra-radical Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

As the flag was raised, a marine wiped away tears from his face with a handkerchief, an assault rifle slung on his shoulders. Thirteen marines died early last Friday morning when they were ambushed and pinned down by dozens of militants, as they were clearing a building in a bombed-out zone of Marawi.

There was sobbing as well from a handful of civilians who went to see the flag-raising, nearly all of them displaced by the fighting. Marawi, once home to over 200,000, is nearly abandoned now.

Gunfire could be heard from a distance, as Philippine troops continued to battle insurgents who have so far outlasted two deadlines set by the government to defeat them, the second one being yesterday.

"We will not allow any group to overthrow government," said Marawi Mayor Majul Gandamra, at the flag-raising ceremony. Welling up, he added: "The devastation that my constituents have experienced is really weighing heavily on me. But we will rise up again."

Some 500 militants from the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups rampaged across Marawi on May 23, after a botched attempt by security forces to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, designated by ISIS as head of its South-east Asia wing.

The military now controls most of Marawi, but around 100 gunmen are still sheltering in a part of the city where they have been rolling back army assaults with anti-tank weapons and sniper fire, and by using civilians as human shields. The militants hold their positions inside fortified buildings and move around using tunnels dug during the long secessionist war fought by other Muslim groups.

President Rodrigo Duterte said on Sunday he had not expected the battle for Marawi to be as serious as it has turned out, adding it had now emerged that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi "has specifically ordered terroristic activities here in the Philippines".

The nation, meanwhile, honoured all security forces and civilians killed in Marawi with a "high-noon salute". The names of 58 soldiers and policemen were read on radio and flashed on TV at noon, as taps, the bugle call, was sounded at all military camps. The remains of eight of the 13 marines killed last Friday were given arrival honours at their headquarters in Manila.

Mr Duterte skipped independence day rites in Manila due to what his aides said was exhaustion, after a whole day and night visiting soldiers fighting in Marawi.

"He's very tired, exhausted. But there's nothing to worry about... I talked to his people and they said, 'There's no problem. He's okay. He's just tired and doesn't feel that well. He just needs to rest'," Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano told reporters.

Mr Duterte had spent the whole day and most of the evening on Sunday visiting troops fighting in Marawi, and at a wake for the marines killed last Friday.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 13, 2017, with the headline 'Philippines marks independence day as battle rages on in Marawi'. Print Edition | Subscribe