ARMED Forces spokesman Maj. Gen. Restituto Padilla and security expert Richard Heydarian agreed that the presence of hostages made it difficult for the military to defeat the Maute group.
Padilla said the military leadership could easily obliterate the Maute extremists if it wanted to, by flattening the buildings where the Maute extremists were hiding, regardless of the hostages they were holding since Day 1 of the rebellion.
But resorting to such drastic option might create more problems in the future, the Air Force official said.
Heydarian believes the military was apprehensive of backlash from netizens, here and abroad, should pictures come out in social media showing bodies of hostages and rebels side by side under rubbles.
Datu Abul Khayr Alonto, Mindanao Development Authority head, said the presence of civilians and hostages in their controlled villages also made it hard for the government forces “to expedite the liberation of the city.”
Heydarian said he felt the crisis would take long during the first few days of the invasion of Marawi City. “I mean, the moment their war started probably within three days, I said, this is urban warfare and generally it’s going to take a long time. Most optimistic is three weeks.”
But he admitted that he underestimated Maute’s strength, as the extremists were able to drag the conflict to more than four months.
“The last time we had a similar situation, but on a far smaller scale, was in Zamboanga in 2013. That time those involved were, fringe elements of MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front), and yet they managed to hold on to certain [villages]up to three weeks,” Heydarian said.
“Then it’s no surprise that here in the case of Marawi we’re taking more than four months so far. And the reality is that it’s not just their tactics. It’s also of course the concerns in civilian casualty. The fact is, the Maute still have hostages,” he said.
Heydarian added: “So, that’s why the AFP cannot just bomb the hell out of them. We are a democracy. In the country like Russia they would just bomb the whole city like what they did in Grozny in Chechnya.”
Mosques as sanctuaries
Another stumbling block was the Maute extremists using the mosques as their sanctuaries and tactical centers.
“You bomb the mosque. [Then] one picture of [military]bombing the mosque could woo, multiply the members of Maute forever. So, you’re definitely not going to deal with the root of problem if you are going bomb mosques, sacred places and that’s seen by the Muslim majority,” Heydarian said.
Padilla also noted that during the early weeks of the conflict, the military was confronted with the big number of civilians who refused to leave their homes for fear that they might victimized by looters. “So those are the complexities that contribute to the military’s hardship to defeat the enemy.”
“One thing more, urban terrain warfare is different than jungle warfare. It is easier to have armed conflict when there is no complication because there are few civilians to be affected,” Padilla said.
There is an international convention that permits the military to attack places of worship if these are being used as staging points of any armed group, Padilla noted.
He was referring to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, specifically Article 16 concerning the protection of cultural objects and of places of worship.
“There are exemptions. But we decided not to attack the mosques, we have to respect these,” Padilla said.
IEDs and booby traps
Heydarian also noted that the Maute were using improvised explosive devices (IEDs), snipers and underground tunnels. These tactics were used by Hamas, the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and by the different Iraqi insurgent groups, he said.
Sen. Juan Miguel Zubiri, who hails from Mindanao, said the Maranao people are also a “warrior race” like the Tausugs. “They have prepared for many years on how to protect themselves. They have other enemies other than the government.”
“Rido” or clan wars are part of the culture in some Muslim communities where feuding families settle their disputes through bloody means.
“If you see the houses in Marawi, these are all reinforced. Even volleys of fire from high-powered firearms will not damage the concrete cement,” Zubiri said.