THE military yesterday said the armed conflict between government forces and the Maute Group in Marawi City is now confined to four barangays, from a high of 10 in the initial days of the firefight that erupted on Tuesday last week.
On Day 9 of the conflict, government forces continued to flush out remnants of the group.
Casualty figures rose. The Maute suffered 24 more dead, bringing the total to 89. On the government side, there were 21 slain soldiers and policemen (from 19) and 72 injured. As to civilians, there were 19 killed while at least 950 have been rescued during the clearing operations.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Monday government was targeting to clear Marawi City of Maute men by today.
Yesterday, national security adviser Hermogenes Esperon said he sees the crisis ending in about one or two weeks.
“Our security forces only need to cross three bridges to take over the heart of the city. That’s what our troops want to hurdle. Once it’s done, all of these will end,” he told reporters after a briefing at the House of Representatives.
Lt. Col. Jo-ar Herrera, spokesman of the Army’s 10th Infantry Division, said there are 30 to 40 Maute members in the four barangays -- Bangolo, Lilod Madaya, Raya Madaya 1 and Raya Madaya II. The city has 96 barangays. Initial reports said there were at least 100 Maute men battling government forces.
“The (number of) affected barangays is down to four, from a high of nine to 10 before... This is apparently their last hurrah, they are pinned down in these battle positions that we are clearing,” said Herrera.
On the number of remaining Maute men, he said, “The others laid low, escaped, left their firearms and mixed with the civilians.”
He also said measures are in place to prevent the Maute members from escaping by mixing with civilians.
Asked when they will be able to clear the city, Herrera said: “The battlefield is very dynamic. We are not putting a deadline... They are still resisting. They have high-powered firearms. They’ve occupied vantage positions so they will see the approaches of government forces. That is what they are doing.”
AFP spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla, during the Mindanao Hour briefing in Malacañang, said government troops have cleared about 90 percent of the city but said he could not divulge the exact location of the “pockets of resistance within Marawi.”
“They (forces on the ground) estimate that they are reaching about 90 percent completely cleared and a little bit more than 10 percent more to go. However, that 10 percent is most likely going to be the area that will be heavily guarded and defended by any of these armed men if they are protecting any individual of high value,” he said.
Herrera said while troops are continuing with clearing operations, the rescue of trapped civilians is still a priority. “As of now, there are still firefight in areas where they have consolidated.”
Herrera said they have information that around 2,000 civilians are “trapped” inside their houses in the conflict areas, based on information gathered by the provincial crisis committee and the military, and distress calls.
Marawi City has some 200,000 residents.
Padilla, in an interview, said the military on Monday started using SF-260 planes in the fight against the Maute, aside from attack helicopters used since last week.
He said the SF-260s are small aircraft with rockets and guns and capable of dropping bombs on enemy positions.
“As we have said, we employ commensurate force against whatever resistance there is in the area. We don’t bomb a building just because there is one sniper on top of it. It doesn’t work that way,” said Padilla.
Padilla said the Maute members are “most likely” using weapons and ammunition they’ve stolen from police and jail personnel.
“They previously burned the jail, freed prisoners and got what they can use, including weapons and ammunition, to include those in the captured APC (armored personnel carrier) of the PNP,” he said.
Padilla said government troops are continuing with operations despite an appeal from Fr. Chito Suganog, vicar general of the Marawi prelature, for the military to pull out from the city and cease fire and air strikes and artillery bombardment.
Suganob, who made the appeal in a video that spread through social media last Tuesday, is being held captive by the Maute Group. He said 240 other civilians are being held with him.
“We are having that (video) authenticated. Granting it’s authentic, we cannot subscribe to it because we will just be (giving in) to the propaganda of the enemy,” said Padilla.
Herrera said the enemy is good at propaganda. “But as of now, we continue to conduct surgical air strikes in the stronghold of the enemy.”
President Duterte is alarmed by the strength of the Maute and intelligence reports suggesting it has teamed up with other extremist groups and has recruited foreign fighters.
“I specifically warned everybody there is more dark cloud ahead of us. I was referring specifically to the contamination of ISIS slowly creeping towards our shores,” Duterte told navy personnel in Davao City.
The military believes the Maute group staged the Marawi attack to prove itself to Islamic State and try to win its endorsement as its affiliate in Southeast Asia.
Duterte said he would not allow Islamic State to gain traction in the Philippines and inflict murder on the scale of Syria and Iraq.
He changed his mind on last week’s offer of dialogue with Maute and said he “will not talk to the terrorists.”
“They are trying to correct the way of living for everybody. They do it by killing people, invoking the name of God and that is a very terrible ideology,” he said of Islamic State.
“It does not know anything except to waste human lives.”
Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said President Duterte has approved the creation of a “peace corridor” that would be jointly implemented by the peace panels of the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, in a bid to fast track rescue and humanitarian operations for civilians affected by the armed conflict.
The corridor will cover 11 areas from Malabang in Lanao del Sur to Marawi City.
Abella said the peace corridor will be a secure space for humanitarian groups to bring wounded and trapped civilians, and goods for the evacuees, among others.
The Department of Education said it has postponed the opening of classes in elementary and high schools in Marawi City by two weeks.
Education Secretary Leonor Briones said the affected schools may have classes on weekends to keep up with the school calendar.