AFP on Marawi clashes: ‘No more deadlines’

Posted on June 15, 2017

THE MILITARY on Wednesday, June 14, reaffirmed anew its target to finish the fighting in Marawi City with Maute terrorists but this time with “no more deadlines,” two days after the city’s planned liberation timed with Independence Day.

Black smoke comes from a burning building in a commercial area of Osmeña Street in Marawi City, June 14. -- Reuters
“There will be no more deadlines,” Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Spokesperson Brigadier-General Restituto F. Padilla, Jr. said in a press briefing at Malacañang.

“So it will entail a bit of time before we clear every house of any armed element. So kaunting pasensya lang po pero nandiyan na po tayo (We ask for a little more patience but we’re getting there),” he added.

Mr. Padilla said conducting an offensive in an urban battleground like Marawi is “where the problem lies” because troops need to be careful to avoid civilian casualties.

“The military activities that are conducted in open terrains like jungles are a different story when it is compared to urban terrain,” he said.

“In an urban terrain where civilians are still currently trapped and may possibly be used as human shields or may be hit by crossfire, troops have to be very careful,” he added.

The AFP had earlier set June 2 and June 12, which is the country’s Independence Day, as its deadline to weed out armed elements in the southern city, provincial capital of Lanao del Sur.

Mr. Padilla said out of the 96 barangays in Marawi, four remain to be “problematic areas.”

“So we will continue to take care of these areas. We will progressively get in and neutralize these targets if they opt to keep on fighting,” he said.

“But we will have to do it (in) a very painstaking manner, in consideration of lives still trapped in the area.”

The fighting is now on its third week, in contrast to the government’s assertion that it had prior knowledge of the planned attack on the city.

The city of Iligan north of Marawi is also on alert after the AFP had warned that terrorists were targeting the city to “kill as many non-Muslims as they can to show to the world that there already is an existing ISIS caliphate in the Philippines.”

US troops are on the ground near Marawi City but are not involved in fighting the militants, Mr. Padilla also said.

The Philippine military has previously said the United States was providing technical assistance to end the occupation of parts of Marawi City by fighters allied to the Islamic State group, but it had no boots on the ground.

“There are some US personnel who are operating equipment to provide information on situation awareness to our troops,” Mr. Padilla said, adding:

“I do not know the exact number and the specific mission. They are allowed to carry rifles for self-defense. But they are not allowed to fight, they only provide support.”

It was not clear how close to the battle zone US troops were. They were from a contingent of Special Forces based in the southern city of Zamboanga, the Philippine military has said previously.

The US embassy in Manila did not respond to a request for comment. A US official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States was providing a P-3 surveillance plane as well as intelligence gathering from a drone. That drone, however, crashed on Saturday after it lost communication links with its operator, the official said.

A security official also in Washington who is familiar with the region said the battle in Marawi appeared to be locked in a stalemate.

“At the very least, it is not at all clear that government forces are presently winning or even gaining significant ground,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“Islamic State demonstrated significant determination and success in capturing and holding Mosul in Iraq and their effort in Marawi is of a similar notable quality.”

On Wednesday, government forces attacked rebel positions in Marawi with bombs, tank fire and helicopter gunships, and plumes of smoke could be seen rising from the battered city. Some sniper shots could be heard. Fighting died down in the afternoon when heavy rain fell.

Another Philippine military spokesman said troops had gained a significant advantage by taking control of eight high-rise building in the battle zone where the militants had set up snipers and machine-gun posts.

“This is very important,” Colonel Edgard Arevalo told reporters. “We are in the final stage of our operation in Marawi. But we have to be very careful with our actions because there are still civilians in the area, they still have hostages and there are still people trapped in the firefight.”

Mr. Padilla for his part said the military will not bomb mosques and other places of worship reportedly being used by the terrorists as snipers’ nests.

The clarification was issued after Lieutenant-Colonel Jo-ar Herrera, spokesman for the army division involved in the Marawi fighting, was quoted in reports as saying that mosques are targeted for surgical airstrikes to eliminate bandits hiding there.

“I would like to clarify that the Armed Forces will not bomb the mosque in the area,” Mr. Padilla said. “The AFP assures our Muslim brothers and Islamic faithfuls that it will not go down to the level of these terrorists who desecrate places of worship to lure government security forces into responding to their violent activities in a similar manner.”

Under the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict with Regulations for the Execution of the Convention 1954, countries are urged to “refrain from any act of hostility” directed against cultural properties.

But the same accord, which was signed by the Philippines on May 14, 1954, also said that such call may be “waived” only in cases “where military necessity imperatively requires” it.

About 100 militants are in the besieged area, the military has said. There are also an estimated 300-600 civilians trapped or being held hostage in the city.

The military said 290 people had been killed, including 206 militants, 58 soldiers and 26 civilians.

Islamic State’s news agency, Amaq, said its fighters controlled two-thirds of the city.

Responding to the report, Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez, head of the military command in Western Mindanao, told Reuters the militants controlled 20% of the town.

“The truth is probably somewhere in between,” said the security official in Washington. -- Ian Nicolas P. Cigaral, with a report by Reuters