Maute steps up resistance amid curtain of Martial Law

Posted on May 26, 2017

TROOPS BACKED by attack helicopters and armored tanks battled dozens of militants linked to the Islamic State (IS) group holed up in the besieged southern city of Marawi on Thursday, May 25, after attempts to secure volatile areas met heavy resistance.

Government troops take position in an assault on the Maute group in Marawi City. -- REUTERS
An initial rampage by the gunmen identified as the Maute group, which has pledged allegiance to the IS group, through the mainly Muslim city on Tuesday prompted President Rodrigo R. Duterte to declare Martial Law across the southern third of the Philippines, immediately formalized in a proclamation the next day.

The army sent about 100 soldiers, including US-trained special forces, to retake buildings and streets in Marawi. Thousands fled as rebels seized large parts of the city and torched buildings in running battles with government forces.

Authorities said ending the crisis was proving extremely hard because the militants were holed up in residential buildings, had planted improvised bombs in the streets and had taken hostages.

“People are afraid. They do not want to open establishments. Offices are closed. We do not want people to be used as human shields,” said Majul Usman Gandamra, mayor of the city and capital of Lanao del Sur province.

Two military helicopters flew above Marawi and armored tanks churned through its streets as automatic rifle firing could be heard on Thursday, according to an AFP photographer in the city.

Marawi has about 200,000 residents but many of them have fled because of the fighting.

Five soldiers and one policemen died in the clashes, while 13 gunmen were killed, according to the military.

Authorities have not reported any civilian casualties but the GMA television network showed images of nine people who had apparently been shot dead. The victims had their hands tied together.

They were captured at a roadside checkpoint and murdered by the militants after being identified as Christians, according to the GMA reporter, citing a witness.

Mr. Duterte himself reported on Wednesday that one policeman was similarly caught at a checkpoint set up by the militants and beheaded.

There are only between 30 and 100 gunmen, according to various military officials.

“We’re confronting maybe 30 to 40 remaining from the local terrorist group,” said Jo-Ar Herrera, a spokesman for the military’s First Infantry Regiment. “The military is conducting precise, surgical operations to flush them out... The situation is very fluid and movements are dynamic because we wanted to out-step and out-maneuver them.”

The militants are also holding between 12 and 15 Catholic hostages abducted from a church, according to the local bishop, Edwin Dela Pena.

The fighting erupted on Tuesday after security forces raided a house where they believed Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the infamous Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom gang and Philippine head of IS, was hiding.

The United States regards Hapilon as one of the world’s most dangerous terrorists, offering a bounty of $5 million for his capture.

However, the raid went spectacularly wrong as dozens of gunmen emerged to repel security forces, before they went on a rampage across the city while flying black IS flags.

Hapilon, the target of the raid, was still in the city, according to Mr. Herrera.

The militants raided two jails, leading to the escape of more than 100 inmates, according to Mujiv Hataman, the governor of a Muslim self-rule area that includes Marawi.

They also set fire to many buildings, including a church and a university.

With Martial Law practically in effect late on Wednesday, the Islamic State claimed responsibility by this time for Maute’s activities via its Amaq news agency.

As of this reporting, the military had sent in two helicopters with machine guns to flush out rebels and take control of a strategic bridge held by the Maute fighters, in one of three operations in the city.

A Reuters witness could see soldiers crouched behind armored vehicles and walls around lunchtime on Thursday, firing volleys of gunshots towards elevated positions occupied by Maute rebels.

Meanwhile, hundreds of civilians, including children, were sheltering in a military camp in Marawi City on Thursday. -- reports by AFP and Reuters