THE military is considering limiting or suspending air strikes after 11 soldiers died and seven were wounded during operations to rid Marawi City of members of the Maute terror group, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said on Thursday.
In a news conference in Malacañang, Lorenzana said the military wanted to prevent a repeat of the bungled air offensives that claimed the lives of government troops.
Lorenzana said it was “very unfortunate” that 11 soldiers were killed in the air offensives.
The first bomb hit the target accurately, but the second bomb fell on the troops. “There must be some mistake there – either the people directing the bomb run on the ground, or the pilot on the air,” Lorenzana said.
The military had to use ordinary bombs because it did not have enough precision-guided munitions at the time.
“We still have some precision-guided munitions. If they are released [they]will really hit the target indicated, but we did not have enough,” Lorenzana said.
The Defense chief said he was giving the decision on whether to continue air strikes to the ground commanders.
“There are more troops operating on the ground and the chances of hitting our own troops are very big like what happened yesterday (Wednesday),” he said.
Lorenzana said Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Eduardo Año had ordered an investigation. Results of the probe will be out in three to five days.
President Duterte has been informed of the incident.
“I know that he feels very badly and he feels sad about this incident,” the Defense chief said.
Año said he had directed the AFP Inspector General to form a board of inquiry, which will be headed by Maj. Gen. Rafael Valencia.
“It was very unfortunate and no one wanted it to happen. I am deeply saddened and the whole AFP commiserate with the bereaved families with deep regret,” Año told reporters.
Año is considering deferring the use of the Italian-made SF260, the Marchetti light trainer aircraft deployed to Marawi.
“Pending the result of the investigation, we may defer the use of SF260 for the meantime but we will continue using all other available ground, air and naval assets in order to resolve this crisis [in Marawi]quickly,” he said.
Lorenzana said the bodies of the slain soldiers have been extracted from the area and their families have been contacted.
“Of course, it will be very sad, very painful to the soldiers, `yung mga kasamahan din nila na, ‘bakit binobomba tayo ng kasamahan natin?’ [their fellow soldiers will say, why are we being bombed by our own men?]But we will just have to explain to them that accidents happen and also to the family. We will try to assuage the sorrows of the families of those who were killed,” the Cabinet official said.
As fighting entered the 10th day, government forces continued their assault on areas being occupied by the Islamic State (IS)-linked Maute group.
The Philippine Marines is sending up to 400 of its men to crush 50 to 100 militants still in Marawi, a Muslim-majority city.
On May 23, a firefight between the government forces and the Maute terror group ensued as troops launched an operation to neutralize terrorist leader Isnilon Hapilon.
The Maute siege of Marawi forced President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law and the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, which allows warrantless arrests.
A total of 120 terrorists have been killed, the military said. Also among the dead are 25 soldiers and policemen and 19 civilians.
The AFP announced on Wednesday it had seized control of 90 percent of Marawi City.
More foreign terrorists killed
Lorenzana also said at least eight foreign terrorists have been killed in the ongoing clashes, as residents reported seeing “foreign-looking” fighters joining gunfights against state forces.
He said the military has so far identified two Malaysians, two Saudis, two Indonesians, a Yemeni, and a Chechen as among those killed in the siege.
The AFP had earlier reported that six foreigners, among them Malaysians and Indonesians, were among the terrorists slain in the Marawi operations.
“They are ISIS members, because the report that we got from the civilians and from Marawi is that they saw a lot of foreign-looking fighters,” Lorenzana said, using another name for the IS.
Foreigners fighting alongside local terror groups Maute and the Abu Sayyaf could have entered the country through the southern backdoor, he said.
“There could be more that we killed that we have not identified,” Lorenzana said.
Senators on Thursday called on the public to pray for and honor all heroes who lost their lives in the ongoing operation against members of the Maute terrorist group in Marawi.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson said that instead of engaging in fault-finding, the AFP should be allowed to conduct its fact-finding investigation into the incident.
“This is not the time to find fault on anyone, particularly those involved in the Marawi operations,” said Lacson, a former national police chief.
Sen. Antonio Trillanes 4th, a former navyman, lamented the tragic death of the soldiers. “Regardless of the circumstances of their deaths, they are heroes. As to why this incident happened in the first place, I defer to the investigation of the AFP and hope that with it is an assurance that future mishaps like this would never happen again,” he added.
with DEMPSEY REYES AND JEFFERSON ANTIPORDA