An eight-hour ceasefire declared on Sunday in Marawi City allowed residents to observe the end of Ramadan and gave an opportunity for religious leaders to enter ground zero and negotiate the release of civilian hostages.
The ceasefire that started at 6 a.m. on Sunday came to an abrupt end as the government continued its offensive against members of the Maute Group occupying parts of war-torn Marawi.
Assaults backed by air and artillery bombardment stopped at the start of Islamic prayers at 6 a.m. but gunfire broke out soon after the truce ended, Agence France Presse reporters said.
Regional military commander Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez said the truce allowed five Muslim religious leaders to negotiate with the terrorists to release their hostages, especially children, women and the elderly.
The negotiators later emerged from the conflict zone with five civilians, including a mother and her 16-month-old daughter.
The woman said she had given birth to another child just two weeks ago in the middle of the fighting but her infant boy died because of lack of food, according to police who interviewed her.
A video released by the military showed the rescued residents looking terrified, pale and haggard.
Military chief General Eduardo Año ordered his forces to observe a “humanitarian pause” during the Eid’l Fitr holiday in Marawi.
“We declare a lull in our current operations in the city on that day as a manifestation of our high respect to the Islamic faith,” Año said in a statement.
Galvez said the temporary ceasefire went well.
“It was very encouraging because our intention was to pay respect to the one of the most sacred Muslim holidays. I’m very happy as a commander [that]both parties stopped [offensives],” he said.
“We do not want to disturb [the]sacred observance. We pay respect to that, we are professional soldiers and we know the feelings of our Muslim brothers, so for us, [ to] give the people a peaceful celebration, that is meaningful for our part,” he added.
Galvez said that some Maute members tried to escape but they were executed by the leaders of the group.
“According to [Maute members] we captured, they were fired upon when they tried to escape and we have heard that they have already executed some of the Maute members that are really trying to escape,” he told The Manila Times.
He said some members of the Maute Group attempted to escape through the river.
“I believe [the terrorists]are not expecting that the conflict will be longer than this,” Galvez added.
Hundreds of militants, flying the flag of the Islamic State group and backed by foreign fighters, seized swathes of Marawi on May 22, sparking bloody street battles and raising regional concern.
Troops have launched a relentless air and ground offensive but have failed to dislodge gunmen from entrenched positions in pockets of the city.
Much of the lakeside city is now in ruins while most of its 200,000 residents have fled to evacuation centers or to the homes of relatives and friends in other towns.
An emotional Sunday prayer was held away from the conflict zone in Marawi, with several Muslim worshippers breaking down, including the imam, television footages showed.
Palace spokesman Ernesto Abella said the humanitarian ceasefire was declared to underscore the government’s solidarity with Muslims.
“It is a sincere gesture which shows respect to the Muslim faith and acknowledges our cultural diversity of our society,” Abella said.
Abella said the BRP Davao del Sur wil deliver military supplies and relief goods to Marawi.
Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said around 500 civilians remained trapped in areas where the fighting is concentrated.
Nearly 300 militants and 67 troops have been killed in the fighting, according to official figures.
Regional military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jo-ar Herrera said Sunday the military was still checking the report that Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the Marawi attack and one of America’s most wanted terrorists, may have slipped out of the city.
”He (Hapilon) is not being heard or monitored by commanding troops on the ground,” Herrera said in Marawi.
Australia has sent two high-tech surveillance planes to help Filipino troops in Marawi, joining the United States in providing military assistance.
WITH LLANESCA PANTI AND AFP