Botched raid led to martial law
MARAWI CITY, Philippines, May 25, (Agencies): The Philippines mobilised attack helicopters and special forces to drive Islamic State-linked rebels out of a besieged southern city on Thursday, with six soldiers killed in street combat amid heavy resistance. Ground troops hid behind walls and armoured vehicles and exchanged volleys of gunfire with Maute group fighters, shooting into elevated positions occupied by militants who have held Marawi City on Mindanao island for two days.
Helicopters circled the city, peppering Maute positions with machine gun fire to try to force them from a bridge vital to retaking Marawi, a mainly Muslim city of 200,000 where fighters had torched and seized a school, a jail and a cathedral, and took more than a dozen hostages. “Our troops are doing deliberate operations in areas we believe are still occupied or infested with the terrorist presence,” said the head of the task force, Brigadier General Rolly Bautista.
The battles with the Maute group, which has pledged allegiance to Islamic State, started on Tuesday during a failed raid by security forces on one of the group’s hideouts that spiralled into chaos. Eighteen rebels were killed on Thursday, the army said. The turmoil was the final straw for President Rodrigo Duterte, who on Tuesday delivered on his longstanding threat to impose martial law on Mindanao, the country’s second-largest island, to stop the spread of radical Islam. “If there’s an open defiance you will die,” he said on Wednesday. “And if it means many people dying, so be it.”
Islamic State claimed responsibility late on Wednesday for Maute’s activities via its Amaq news agency. At least 46 people — 15 security forces and 31 rebels — have been killed and religious leaders say militants were using Christians taken hostage during the fighting as human shields. The status of those hostages was not known.
The White House condemned the Maute group as “cowardly terrorists” and said the United States was a proud ally of the Philippines and backed its fight against extremism. Duterte said on Wednesday that one of the policemen killed was similarly caught at a checkpoint set up by the militants, then beheaded. 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-forransom 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. The raid went spectacularly wrong as dozens of gunmen emerged to repel the security forces, then went on a rampage across the city while flying black IS flags. The gunmen belonged to the Maute group, which along with Hapilon’s faction of the Abu Sayyaf, had pledged allegiance to IS, authorities said.
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. 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.