MARAWI CITY/ZAMBOANGA CITY: Military aircraft continued to bomb terrorist targets in Marawi City as security forces battled the Islamic State (IS)-linked Maute group and their armed supporters fighting for the establishment of a caliphate in the restive Muslim region of Mindanao.
Several houses, including one owned by a lawmaker, were blasted on Saturday as television crew members sneaked into Bangon, one of villages bombed by the air force.
One villager guiding journalists said the bomb destroyed the house of a lawmaker. A video of the aftermath of the air strike was also uploaded on social media and showed the house hit by the bomb still burning.
“The village is empty. Everybody has evacuated. That house is also empty, but they still bombed it,” the guide said.
The Western Mindanao Command confirmed the air strikes and said they targeted Maute fighters hiding out in different houses and buildings there.
“As fighting continues in Marawi, our units are constrained to launch air strikes to identified specific targets occupied by the [Maute] terrorist group. These terrorist atrocities continue to sow terror and confusion even to non-combatant Muslims and Christians,” said Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez, chief of the Western Mindanao Command.
He also sought the help of the Moro National Liberation Front and rival Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and apologized to tens of thousands of people affected and displaced by the war.
He said troops would also be deployed to different mosques to protect Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan.
The military said 13 soldiers, two policemen and 31 terrorists, including foreigners, have died in the fighting.
Two civilians were also confirmed killed inside a hospital that the gunmen had occupied on Tuesday, and the military has said nine other people may have been murdered at a militant checkpoint.
“As of this report, 31 terrorists were already neutralized and six high-powered firearms were recovered by the troops. Our troops are doing deliberate operations in areas we believe are still occupied or infested with the terrorists’ presence. I specifically ordered our soldiers to locate and destroy these terrorists as soon as possible,” said Brig. Gen. Rolando Bautista, commander of military forces fighting the Maute group.
With security forces unable to end the crisis and the gunmen believed to be holding up to 15 hostages, the military warned on Saturday that it would step up the bombing assaults.
“In as much as we would like to avoid collateral damage, these rebels are forcing the hand of government by hiding and holding out inside private homes, government buildings and other facilities,” military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said.
It was unclear where the casualties reported by the military were based, as fewer bodies of militants had reportedly been recovered by troops.
Malaysian media—quoting unnamed intelligence sources—reported that two Malaysians, Abdulrahman Asmawi from Kelantan and Kamsa Yahya from Kedah; an Indonesian militant, Shei Ayman Marjuki; and an Arab sheik, Ahmad Balkafi—were among those killed in Marawi.
Malaysian newspaper The Star also reported that former Universiti Malaya lecturer Mahmud Ahmad, also known as Abu Handzalah, was also in Marawi and helping Abu Sayyaf chieftain and local IS leader Isnilon Hapilon in putting up a caliphate in the southern region.
Troops were trying desperately to drive the militants out in the open as security forces cordoned off Marawi to prevent the jihadists from escaping. But there were no signs of the militants backing down, although they earlier threatened to execute over a dozen civilian hostages, including a Catholic priest, should security forces continue with their assaults.
The fighting began on May 23 when militants occupied Marawi, the capital of Lanao del Sur in the Muslim autonomous region. Photos of militants surfaced on social media with one picture showing three heavily armed jihadists posing on top of a destroyed army tank in Marawi. Other photos showed the militants manning roadblocks in the city.
The militants, who have pledged allegiance to the IS, have forged an alliance with various jihadist groups, including the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the notorious Abu Sayyaf terrorist and kidnap group.
Galvez again appealed to citizens to help them fight terrorism by providing intelligence on the militants. He earlier vowed to crush the Maute group in two days.
“We once more call on the people in the community to join us fight terrorism. Provide your security forces with information that will contribute to the neutralization of these agents of deaths and destruction. We will exhaust all efforts to crush the remaining Maute members so that the people of Marawi City can go back to their homes the soonest,” he said.
The siege of Marawi by IS fighters forced President Rodrigo Duterte to cut short his four-day visit to Russia last week. Before heading back to the Philippines, Duterte declared a 60-day martial law in the whole of Mindanao in an effort to destroy the Maute group and end the violence in Marawi.