MARAWI CITY: Military troops fired mortars in Marawi City as they battled Islamist militants of the Maute group who were holding hostages and were reported to have murdered at least 11 civilians.
A Manila Times source said certain groups have offered to negotiate with the Maute to end fighting and free the hostages in Marawi, but the military turned it down because the Islamists demanded the withdrawal of government troops.
An initial rampage by the Maute gunmen, who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS), through the mainly Muslim city of Marawi in Lanao del Sur province on Tuesday prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to impose martial law across Mindanao.
Authorities said ending the crisis was proving extremely hard because although there were only 30 to 40 remaining gunmen, the militants were moving nimbly through homes, had planted bombs in the streets and were holding hostages.
Intense gunfighting could be heard constantly throughout the day, according to journalists in the city, and the military said it had dropped bombs on residential neighborhoods.
“We are using surgical airstrikes,” Army First Infantry Division spokesman Lt. Col. Jo-Ar Herrera told reporters in Marawi shortly before big clouds of black smoke rose from a bombed area near the provincial government building.
Most of Marawi’s 200,000 residents had fled the city, which is about 800 kilometers south of Manila, but Herrera said those who remained had been warned to get out of the areas where there was bombing and fighting.
“We are requesting our people in Marawi to go to safe places…and to stay indoors,” he said.
Five soldiers, two policemen and 26 militants have died in the three days of fighting, according to authorities. Thirty-nine soldiers were wounded.
Herrera said two civilians had also been killed inside the Apai Pakpak hospital that the gunmen had occupied on Tuesday, and the military was investigating reports that nine people had been murdered at a checkpoint the militants had set up.
GMA News showed images of nine bullet-riddled bodies lying in a field with their hands tied together.
Duterte said on Wednesday that one of the policemen killed was similarly caught at a checkpoint set up by the militants, then beheaded.
But Philippine National Police (PNP) spokesman Dionardo Carlos said in a news briefing that Senior Insp. Freddie Solar was not beheaded, as confirmed by troops conducting clearing operations. The other police fatality is Edwin Placido, also a senior inspector.
Military won’t negotiate – source
A source who was tapped by the government as a negotiator during the Maute’s siege of Butig town in Lanao del Sur last year, said certain parties tried to lobby the military into negotiations but were rejected.
The source said the Maute group wanted government forces to leave the city and stop pursuing them in return for the release of hostages.
On Wednesday evening, IS propaganda arm Amaq News Agency reported that the Maute had taken control of some areas in the city.
The militants are holding between 12 and 15 Catholic hostages abducted from the Marawi cathedral, including a priest, Fr. Chito Suganob, according to Marawi Bishop Edwin de la Peña.
The militants raided two jails, leading to the escape of more than 100 inmates, according to Mujiv Hataman, governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao that includes Marawi.
They also set fire to many buildings, including the Marawi cathedral and a university.
An enraged Duterte, who was in Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, declared martial law shortly after the fighting erupted and cut short his trip to fly home and deal with the crisis.
“It is brutality, cruelty,” Duterte said on Wednesday after flying back to Manila.
Duterte said martial law was required throughout the southern region of Mindanao, home to 20 million people, to stop the rising threat of hardline militants aligned to IS.
He said Wednesday he may impose martial law throughout the rest of the country if he believed the terrorism threat was spreading.
The President, who has waged a controversial war on drugs that has claimed thousands of lives, warned martial law would be “harsh” and similar to military rule imposed by dictator Ferdinand Marcos a generation ago.
‘Maute misleading public’
The military on Thursday said the attacks initiated by the Maute group on government troops deployed in Marawi City were intended to mislead military operations.
Herrera, the spokesman of the Army’s First Infantry Division, claimed the Maute group’s movements were “desperate, unfixed.”
“We are focused on neutralizing this terror group. Our partners here are the PNP and other law enforcement groups who have been assisting us all in assessing the incident area such as recovering the victims from the local terrorist group,” he told reporters.
Security forces are clearing the villages of Gadungan, Basak Malulut and Dangan, Herrera said. The Apai Pakpak Hospital in Marawi, which was attacked by the terrorists, is operational, he added.
“Our troops there have put up maximum tolerance [in the areas]. This is important here, we want our countrymen to understand that it is very important for the AFP to protect our people, community,” he said.
Herrera urged the public to refrain from posting blow-by-blow the operations of the military on social media, noting that the Maute is a “media-savvy” terrorist group.
“I hope we won’t support them because these groups take pictures and videos and they are doing this to confuse our people. And it does not mean that they are in full control of the area. Your military, your Armed Forces and the local government units are in full control of the situation,” he said.
with AFP AND DEMPSEY REYES