• ‘Marawi crisis nears end’ – AFP

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    GOVERNMENT forces are getting closer to ending the offensive against terrorists occupying Marawi City, but would no longer set deadlines, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said on Wednesday.

    AFP public affairs chief Col. Edgard Arevalo told reporters military forces, along with the Philippine National Police (PNP), were “nearing the conclusion” of fighting in the Islamic City.

    “We are in the final stage of our operations in Marawi. The challenges we have been facing were hard,” Arevalo said.

    Fighting between government forces and the Maute terrorist group is on its 24th day, since the bandits launched attacks in Marawi City on May 22. It prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law in the whole island of Mindanao on May 23.

    On Tuesday, the Western Mindanao Command said four barangay (villages) were still being controlled by the Maute in Marawi City. The command’s chief, Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez, said Maute snipers have been hiding within high-rise buildings.

    Arevalo said on Wednesday the military was able to recover eight high-rise buildings on Tuesday.

    “What is important here is that we reclaimed one of the buildings that was considered as a high-rise establishment that overlooks the city, and it was previously nested by [Maute] snipers. So this is actually an improvement,” he said.

    Arevalo stressed that the Maute group has been “weakening,” noting that the number of its fighters have started to decrease.

    “We are not going to take this lightly. We cannot be imprudent. We have to be very careful with our actions since the Maute still have civilians with them and they were all taken as hostages,” he said.

    The military is looking to accomplish three main objectives: the neutralization of terrorists, rescue of civilians, and setting the conditions for reconstruction and rehabilitation of Marawi City.

    “We are now looking at the third option because we see that we are nearing the conclusion of this conflict,” he said. Dempsey Reyes

    No more deadlines

    AFP spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla Jr. on Wednesday said the military would no longer set a deadline for the liberation of Marawi City as it promised not to bomb mosques and masjids (central mosques) that Maute terrorists were using as hiding places.

    During the “Mindanao Hour” news briefing in Malacañang, Padilla said the military turned down the option of targeting mosques in surgical air strikes.

    “For now, we will not set deadlines. We will ensure that we will be able to clear it of any armed element that still exists, and it may take some time,” Padilla told reporters.

    “We categorically state that we have not bombed and will not bomb mosques in Marawi. The Armed Forces leadership is firm in its commitment to use other options that would flush out this Maute/Daesh-inspired group from these places of worship that they have converted into machine gun and sniper nests, defensive positions, and arsenals for their war activities,” he added.

    On Tuesday, Army 1st Infantry Division spokesman Lt. Col. Jo-ar Herrera said the AFP was compelled to launch surgical strikes on places of worship that have been turned into the extremists’ staging areas.

    Herrera told reporters in Marawi City that mosques would be bombed “in order to save lives and in order to protect our troops.”

    The AFP on Wednesday denied launching attacks on Muslims’ houses of worship.

    “The AFP assures our Muslim brothers and Islamic faithful that it will not go down to the level of these terrorists who desecrate places of worship to lure government security forces into responding to their violent activities in a similar manner,” Padilla said.

    “We are confident that through other options available to the Armed Forces, we will be able to retake the remaining portion of Marawi occupied by these terrorists, neutralize the remaining members who continue to hold out and begin the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the city,” he added.

    The AFP earlier set June 2 as its deadline to free Marawi of armed elements, but it failed to meet its self-imposed deadline. The military again set June 12, Independence Day, as a deadline to liberate Marawi City, but again failed to wipe out terrorists.

    In the same news conference, Palace spokesman Ernesto Abella echoed AFP chief-of-staff General Eduardo Año who said state forces respect places of worship and other cultural and heritage sites, thus “will do everything possible to protect and preserve these places.”

    Proposed P10-B budget welcomed

    Malacañang on Wednesday welcomed a proposal for an additional P10-billion budget to bankroll the rebuilding efforts in war-torn Marawi City.

    Abella said the “Tindeg Marawi” bill filed in Congress would complement the planned executive order that would allot another P10 billion to help Marawi recover from the armed conflict.

    “In anticipation of the rehabilitation of Marawi, Congress has proposed a P10-billion supplemental budget to rebuild Marawi through House Bill 5874 or the Tindeg Marawi Bill,” Abella told reporters.

    The bill filed by Kabayan Rep. Harry Roque proposes to set aside funds for humanitarian aid to the victims of the Marawi conflict, and the rehabilitation of infrastructure, business establishments and property.

    The rehabilitation funds will be divided among the Department of National Defense, the Department of Education, the Department of Public Works and Highways, the Department of Social Welfare and Development, and the National Housing Authority.

    Earlier, Malacañang announced it would soon implement a P10-billion “Bangon Marawi” rehabilitation project.

    “The EO (executive order) for ‘Bangon Marawi’ is awaiting President Duterte’s signature,” Abella told state-run radio station over the weekend. “The proposed package amounting to P10 billion, as promised by the President, will be a multi-agency effort.”

    Padilla, the AFP spokesman, said the government could not yet peg a definite figure for the cost of the damage in Marawi.

    “We do not know yet. We will need professionals to estimate it but before that we need to clear the city first of all armed rebels,” Padilla told The Manila Times in a text message.

    Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, in a separate text message, told The Times military engineers “have not made the survey as there are still pockets of resistance.”

    “We start rebuilding after we have cleared the area of explosives,” Lorenzana said.

    To expedite the clearing operations in Marawi City, Padilla said the military was not closing its doors on military assistance from other nations like China and Russia.

    “The government and its armed forces is open to any help because it is a worldwide battle against terrorists,” he said.

    Top security officials earlier confirmed that United States troops are assisting the Philippine military in its fight against the Maute group.

    The US military aid, however, is only limited to technical assistance.

    “Yes, we asked for their help. We requested them to stay there and provide us assistance because we don’t have such capability [to fight against terrorism alone],” Padilla said.

    with  CATHERINE S. VALENTE

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