THE fighting is not yet over, but security forces have regained control of Marawi City as the siege entered its seventh day on Monday, military officials said.
Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla, spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said the military had regained “complete control” of the city, dismissing reports that some areas are still under the terrorist Maute Group.
“We have complete control of the city contrary to what is coming out in social media and other information, perhaps some fake news. It is not true that half of the city is controlled by the rebels. Totally untrue,” Padilla said in a news briefing.
“The Armed Forces and the police — our forces — are in complete control of the city, except for certain areas where they continue to hold. These are the subject of clearing operations that are continuously being conducted,” he added.
The Provincial Crisis Committee in Lanao del Sur said the villages of Green, Basak Malutlut, Saduc and Bangon have been cleared of the rebels.
Padilla admitted that security officials could not say how many militants are still in Marawi of the have the “very fluid situation.”
Initial information put the number of militants at 40 to 50 but the rebels freed more than 100 prisoners and some of the detainees may have joined the group.
“So quite a number of those prisoners may have joined ranks with them because some of them were imprisoned for joining the group. We are also aware that there are sympathetic elements that may have been helping and may have also joined their ranks,” he told reporters.
Security officials who briefed senators yesterday said the situation in Marawi City may normalize by Friday.
Deputy minority leader Francis Pangilinan said Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana was hopeful that Marawi will be cleared of militants by June 2.
In a brief interview before the briefing, Lorenza told reporters that the government is likely to end the crisis in Marawi City within 60 days.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. also attended the closed-door briefing. Armed forces chief Eduardo Año did not show up because he was in Mindanao, but AFP vice chief of staff Lt. Gen. Salvador Melchor Mison Jr. was present.
Padilla gave assurances that the military is doing everything to end the clashes in Marawi City.
“Although we do not have a timeline, we’re seeking to end this as soon as possible. Our ground commanders have assured (us) that the end is almost there. So we hope to get clear results,” he said.
Burn the city
Año said the Maute militants had planned to burn Marawi City.
“The Maute-ISIS Group planned to set ablaze the entire city if Marawi within the time of the month of Ramadan,” he said in a statement. Security forces however surprised the militants during a raid in a safehouse in Barangay Basak Malulut.
“These and other significant information were obtained from a very reliable source in the continuing clearing operations in Marawi,” Año added.
Col. Edgard Arevalo, head of the AFP’s public affairs office, confirmed that the “grand plan” of the Maute Group was to burn down Marawi City.
“Hence, what others termed to be a ‘botched raid’ turned out to be an ‘abortive raid’ that prevented what could have been the carnage of an Islamic City in two weeks yet,” Arevalo said.
Clashes between government troops and the militants started on May 23. The military said 61 Maute members have been neutralized.
Army helicopters again fired rockets at militants on Monday, as fears grew for the hundreds of residents unable to escape a week of relentless fighting that has left women and children dead.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is trying to help those trapped, said people were dying from the extreme conditions and stray bullets.
“When our colleages speak to them on phone calls, we hear that the situation is very difficult. Food is running out, water is running out, they don’t have electricity,” Martin Thalmann, the deputy head of the ICRC’s Philippine delegation who is in Marawi, said.
“There is intense fighting with small arms. It is really a terrible situation for them… people have died because they were shot and there was no doctor to treat them.”
Authorities said the gunmen had murdered at least 19 civilians, including women and children, while 17 members of the security forces had died in the clashes and 61 militants were killed.
Myrna Bandung, a Catholic woman, told reporters at a checkpoint on Monday that she had been with the eight victims shot dead.
“They did not kill me because I was able to recite a Muslim prayer. The others were not so lucky,” a visibly shocked Bandung said.
Most of the city’s residents had fled to nearby towns.
But adding to the fears for those who remained, the military announced on the weekend that it would intensify a bombing campaign on the areas being held by the militants.
An Agence France Presse reporter in Marawi witnessed helicopters flying low repeatedly on Monday afternoon and firing rockets on areas where the militants were believed to be hiding, with smoke up rising up from those locations afterwards.
Troops walked behind tanks as they went down seemingly deserted streets, occasionally launching a barrage of automatic rifle fire after being shot at by snipers.
WITH JEFFERSON ANTIPORDA, DEMPSEY REYES AND AFP