CLASHES between soldiers and members of the Maute Group in Marawi had diminished in fierceness and frequency, the military said on Monday as the siege entered its 50th day.
Armed Forces officials however would not say if the fighting is at a tailend.
Col. Edgard Arevalo, chief of the public affairs office of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, admitted that firefights had been less intense.
“If we are going to talk about the frequency and the intensity, as compared to the first weeks, it’s not that intense anymore,” he told reporters.
Arevalo maintained that the government was winning and “gaining ground.”
“We still have more positions, structures that we need to get and that’s what we are focusing now. What we are saying is that their world [is getting]smaller everyday, and our troops’ morale is increasing,” he said.
“Our motivation is still there, the persistence is still there, but we have to be very careful because it’s not just our life and limb that we are protecting, but also the lives and limbs of the civilians they are holding as hostages,” Arevalo added.
The number of casualties on the government side increased to 89, while the number of terrorists killed was pegged at 379. At least 39 civilians also lost their lives during the siege.
“There are days that we don’t have casualties [in the government side]but the casualties on the other side continue to mount, but the most important thing we would like to express is that statistics is not our basis, our measure of success, if I may call it that way for the day, is what we are doing, which is the fight,” Arevalo said.
The official said soldiers were clearing areas slowly because it was so easy for terrorists to hide.
Arevalo narrated that based on videos shown to him, the battle ground is “dense,” thus government troops have to move from one house to another or from one building to the next.
“The alleyways are narrow. The area is very built-up, it would be easy for the enemy to hide and to suddenly shoot you because you can’t see them and vice versa,” he said.
“So we are doing our clearing operations alley by alley, street by street, block by block, house to house. Our movement should be meticulous because of the area’s setup,” he told reporters.
Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla Jr., spokesman for the AFP, echoed this.
He expressed hope that the fighting would soon be concluded.
“We continue to gain headway with our operations on the ground,” he said.
“Nasa 80-100 na lang estimate ng kalaban sa loob ng Marawi. Medyo bumaba na rin frequency (of fighting) sa ilang lugar (By our estimate, there are only 80 to 100 terrorists left in Marawi. There are fewer fights in some areas).”
Forced to fight
Children and hostages are being forced to fight alongside pro-Islamic State gunmen waging a seven-week battle for a Philippine city, the military said also on Monday.
Militants seized Marawi, considered the Muslim capital of the largely Catholic Philippines, on May 23 in a bid to create an IS province.
Some of the extremists are teenagers who may have been recruited and trained to use guns when they were still children, Padilla said.
“We continuously get disturbing narratives from (escaped residents) that children as well as hostages are being employed in the firefight,” he told reporters.
“As disturbing as it is, our troops are doing their best to avoid any casualty among these children that are being employed,” he said.
“But in the event… they bear arms and are involved in the fighting, there is nothing much that we can do. Similarly to the hostages who are being forced.”
Shortly after seizing Marawi, gunmen took at least a dozen hostages, including a Catholic priest. Some of the estimated 300 other civilians still trapped in the area may have also been taken captive, said Padilla.