MARAWI CITY: United States special forces are providing support to the Philippine military battling to dislodge Islamist militants in a southern city, the US embassy said Saturday, as 13 Filipino Marines were killed in fresh fighting.
The announcement of US help in the embattled southern region comes after President Rodrigo Duterte has sought to reduce the Philippines’ reliance on the United States and build much closer ties with China and Russia.
Philippine troops are struggling to defeat hundreds of fighters, who rampaged through Marawi on May 23 flying black flags of the Islamic State group, and have used bomb-proof tunnels, anti-tank weapons and civilians as human shields to fortify their positions.
Friday’s ferocious, street-to-street gunbattles with the militants saw 13 troops killed in a dramatic surge in the toll from the conflict.
It was among the heaviest fighting in the standoff, according to Agence France-Presse journalists in Marawi, with the air force supporting ground troops with sustained bombing runs that battered the city.
As the fighting intensified, the US embassy in Manila said American forces were providing assistance to the Filipino troops, although it declined to give details for security reasons.
“At the request of the government of the Philippines, US special operations forces are assisting the [Philippine military] with ongoing operations in Marawi,” the embassy said in a statement.
Army 1st Infantry Division spokesman Lt. Col. Jo-ar Herrera confirmed the US help, adding that the special forces were not fighting, but “providing technical support.”
He said Friday’s deaths brought the number of government troops killed in the conflict to 58.
“There were intense firefights, house-to-house gun battles,” said Herrera at a news conference in Marawi.
“We are saddened with the result… we have fatalities on the government side,” he said.
At least 20 civilians and around 138 militants have also been killed, the government said.
The insurgents have so far withstood more than two weeks of air and ground assaults by security forces, with about 2,000 people believed to be trapped in militant-held areas although the military said this amounts to only around 10 percent of the city.
Herrera said the militants’ tactics was making it harder for security forces to carry out attacks without causing civilian casualties and hurting religious sensitivities.
“The local terrorist groups are using the mosque, they are entrenched there. They also used civilians as human shields… we are very precise in our operations to avoid collateral damage.”
President Duterte said the militant attack was part of a wider plot by IS to establish a base in the southern region of Mindanao, and declared martial law there to quell the threat.
The US Embassy said Washington would “continue to work with the Philippines to address shared threats to the peace and security of our countries, including on counterterrorism issues” in its statement Saturday.
The military confirmed on Saturday the deaths of 13 members of the Philippine Marine Corps during a 14-hour gun battle with the Maute group in Marawi City.
Col. Edgard Arevalo, public affairs chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), said the encounter between government troops and the IS-backed Maute group took place in the vicinity of Lilot Madaya village.
Aside from the 13 marines killed in action, Arevalo, disclosed that 40 other government forces were wounded while battling the remaining terrorists occupying several areas in the Muslim-majority city.
“Initial reports indicate that the fierce firefight ensued when the Marines assaulted the reported enemy position at around 3:30 a.m. and firefight continued up to around 5 p.m. of the same day,” he said in a statement.
“We are unable to receive additional details yet as fighting resumed,” Arevalo continued.
Arevalo, also a Marine, said the fallen troops showed “heroism and raw courage.”
“This temporary setback has not diminished our resolve a bit. It instead primed up our determination to continue our prudent advances to neutralize the enemy, save the innocent lives trapped in the fight, and set the conditions for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Marawi,” he said.
In a news briefing, Herrera, spokesman for the army’s 1st Infantry Division, denied that the Maute attacked the Marines at their positions. Herrera said the Marines were on the offensive position, launching an attack against the Maute on Friday.
Troops tried to take out a machine gun and sniper nest of the terrorists, which were positioned on tall buildings in the village, said Herrera.
He said the AFP was still assessing the operation against the local terror group.
On Friday, AFP spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla Jr. said in a news briefing the military would be commemorating Independence Day in the whole city of Marawi by waving the flag, as instructed by AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Eduardo Año.
He did not say which key officials would be present.
Padilla said the military was rooting for an end to the clashes “hopefully soon.”