MEMBERS of the Islamic State-linked Maute group fighting the military in Marawi City should surrender now while they still can, or else die, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) warned on Tuesday.
Some 2,000 residents are feared trapped while more than 100 people have been confirmed killed in the conflict, which began last week when gunmen waving black flags of the Islamic State (IS) group rampaged through the mostly Muslim-populated city of Marawi in Lanao del Sur province.
AFP Spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla Jr. made the warning as the Maute group members dug in on the eighth day of fighting.
“We aired this message in the hope of ending this soon and reducing any more loss of lives and property,” Padilla said in a statement.
President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in the whole island of Mindanao on May 23 while on an official visit to Russia following the attacks by the terror group.
Padilla expressed confidence the joint operations of the military and the police would turn out to be successful.
“For the terrorists, not surrendering will mean their sure death,” he said.
The militants took a Catholic priest and up to 14 other people hostage at the start of the crisis, and their fate remains unknown.
The militants released a video in which they threatened to kill the hostages, according to a report by the SITE Intelligence Group on Monday that could not be verified. The priest, Fr. Chito Suganob, also appeared in a video urging Duterte to pull out troops (Story on A2).
Clashes on Tuesday appeared to be as intense as previous days, according to an Agence France-Presse reporter who followed security forces who had to run from militants’ sniper fire coming from nearby buildings.
Military helicopters fired rockets repeatedly on that part of the city on Tuesday morning, and black smoke rose from the buildings that were apparently hit.
The gunmen were being backed by foreign fighters, including Malaysians, Indonesians and Singaporeans, authorities said.
Padilla however said he could not confirm if foreigners were indeed among the dead, despite an announcement last week by Solicitor General Jose Calida.
“We cannot confirm it yet. Because they are all the same, all the bodies we have recovered all have the same faces, and there were identifications so we still have to [identify]them,” said Padilla.
SAF tank stolen – PNP chief
On Tuesday, Director General Ronald de la Rosa, chief of the Philippine National Police (PNP), confirmed that an armored tank of the Special Action Force (SAF) was stolen by the Maute group, following an earlier denial by a police spokesman.
“That is true. That is one of the objects of recovery of the PNP. We have to recover that but we are clearing [Marawi City] step by step to recover [the tank],” he said.
De la Rosa said the SAF tank was seized while police commandos in Marawi City were on their way to the capitol from their provincial headquarters.
“[T]hey were land-mined [and]were ambushed. When they were ambushed [by the Maute], one wheel broke down and the policemen were left,” he said.
The tank lost one wheel and fell in a gutter.
“The crew [inside the SAF tank]were wounded. The crew were extricated that is why the tank was stolen,” the PNP chief said.
The wounded cops are still alive, he said.
Rising death toll
The militants had killed at least 19 civilians, while 20 security forces and 65 gunmen had died, according to the military.
The death toll looked likely to climb, with soldiers reporting the smell of corpses in a public market still being held by the militants.
Martin Thalmann, deputy head of the International Red Cross’ Philippine delegation who is in Marawi, also told AFP on Monday his staff had received reports from people trapped inside the militants’ areas that residents had died from stray bullets and sickness.
The violence began when dozens of gunmen went on a rampage in response to an attempt by security forces to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, a veteran Filipino militant regarded as the local leader of IS.
Hapilon, a senior member of the Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom gang, is on the US government’s list of most-wanted terrorists.
He was being protected in Marawi by the local Maute group, which has pledged allegiance to IS.
Hapilon, the Maute and other militants had been planning a major attack on Marawi, one of the few Islamic cities in the mainly Catholic Philippines with a population of 200,000 people, armed forces chief General Eduardo Año said.
He said they were planning to launch the assault to coincide with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began on the weekend, but the raid on Hapilon triggered them to attack earlier, according to Año.
Muslim separatist rebellion in the southern Philippines has claimed more than 120,000 lives since the 1970s.
The main Muslim rebel groups have signed accords with the government aimed at forging a final peace, giving up their separatist ambitions in return for autonomy.
The Maute, the Abu Sayyaf and other hardline groups are not interested in negotiating and have in recent years looked to IS to help them.
The Marawi violence was intended to highlight their credentials to IS, security analysts have said.
Duterte said Saturday he was prepared to enforce martial law for as long as was necessary to end the terrorist threat.