MARAWI CITY • Philippine troops fighting Islamist rebels in a southern city have encountered armed resistance from women and children, the military said yesterday, as troops make a final push to end a conflict that has raged for more than 100 days.
Ground forces have braced themselves for higher casualties amid fierce fighting in Marawi City on the island of Mindanao, where the field of battle has shrunk to a small area in a commercial heart infested with snipers, and littered with booby traps.
"We are now in the final phase of our operations and we are expecting more intense and bloody fighting. We may suffer heavier casualties as the enemy becomes more desperate," said Lieutenant-General Carlito Galvez, who heads the military in western Mindanao.
He said the number of fighters was diminishing and a small number of women and children, most likely family members of the rebels, were engaged in combat.
"Our troops in the field are seeing women and children shooting at them," he added.
More than 800 people, most of them insurgents, have been killed in the battle since May 23, when the militants occupied large parts of the predominantly Muslim town.
The battle is the biggest security challenge in years for the mostly Catholic Philippines, even though the country has a long history of Muslim separatist rebellion in Mindanao, an island of 22 million people that has been placed under martial law until the end of the year.
The protracted clashes and resilience of the rebels has fanned fears that Philippine groups loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and with ties to Indonesian and Malaysian militants, have formed an alliance that is well-organised as well as funded and armed, and serious about carving out its own territory in Mindanao.
Citing information provided by four hostages who had escaped from the rebels, Lt-Gen Galvez said there were some 56 Christian hostages - most of them women. Also, about 80 male residents may have been forced to take up arms and fight the military.
The fighting was focused on an area around a mosque about a quarter of a square kilometre. He said soldiers were taking control of an average 35 buildings a day and, at that rate, it could be three weeks before the city was under government control.
Fighting in Marawi was intense yesterday, with heavy gunfire and explosions ringing out across the once picturesque, lakeside town, the heart of which has been devastated by near-daily government air strikes. Helicopters circled above to provide air cover for ground troops as fighting raged, with bursts of smoke rising above the skyline as bombs landed on rebel positions.