MANILA, Aug 30, (AFP): Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Wednesday a three-month battle against Islamic State group supporters occupying parts of a southern city was in its “final stages”. Duterte gave his assessment shortly after government troops secured a vital bridge in Marawi city, allowing them easier access into areas being held by the militants.
“We are in the final stages. So let us send immediately, even air-lift, the police,” to Marawi, Duterte said in the capital Manila, about 800 kilometres (500 miles) to the north of the battle zone. Pro-IS gunmen occupied parts of Marawi, the Islamic capital of the mainly Catholic Philippines on May 23, triggering a battle that the military says has left almost 800 people dead.
The fighting, which has included a US-backed air campaign against the militants, has destroyed large parts of Marawi. Duterte and security analysts have said the militants carried out the assault in an effort to establish a Southeast Asian base for IS. Duterte on Wednesday warned that, even with the Marawi battle over, the militants could still launch attacks elsewhere in the Philippines, particularly in the strife-torn south where the country’s Muslim minority is based.
The southern regions of the Philippines have long been troubled by armed Muslim bands including separatist guerrillas and outlaws, some of whom have gravitated towards IS. Duterte said other southern cities with large Muslim populations, including his hometown of Davao, were vulnerable. He said Manila might also be a target.
Duterte imposed martial law across the southern third of the Philippines immediately after the militants occupied parts of Marawi to combat the security threat. Hours before Duterte spoke, soldiers in Marawi secured the Mapandi bridge, a vital supply route which had once been menaced by militant snipers and rocket- propelled grenades. Soldiers marched across the bridge on Wednesday in large numbers, although gunfire could still be heard nearby. Military spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla said there were only about 40 militants left in Marawi, confined to a space about half a square kilometre wide.
But Padilla warned there were many buildings in that space where they could be hiding, while a local commander said fierce fighting was still to be expected. “Every inch of the buildings that we take, they resist,” Brigadier General Melquiades Ordiales told reporters who accompanied the soldiers across the bridge. The militants have been able to withstand the military assault, which has included a relentless USbacked bombing campaign, by hiding in tunnels and bunkers. They are also believed still to be holding hostages, including a Catholic priest.
Meanwhile, France on Wednesday became embroiled in a dispute with Duterte over his deadly war on drugs as it stressed the importance of human rights and the rule of law. The French embassy released a statement emphasising respect for human rights as it rejected comments by Duterte that people in France were presumed guilty until proven innocent. “We have to point out that, as in the Philippines, the presumption of innocence until proven guilty is at the core of the French judicial system, based on the principles enshrined in the French Declaration of Human and Civic Rights of August 26, 1789,” the statement said. “France strongly believes in the importance of the rule of law, due process and respect for human rights in all countries, including the Philippines.” In a press conference on Monday, Duterte had reacted angrily to comments by the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Agnes Callamard, about the alleged murder by police of a 17-year-old boy as part of the drug war.
On her Twitter account, Callamard condemned the killing as “murder” and called for an investigation, saying the boy’s death should be the last. Duterte, who frequently uses coarse language particularly against critics of his drug war, lashed out at her personally. Duterte, 72, easily won presidential elections last year after promising to wipe out drugs in the country by waging an unprecedented crackdown in which tens of thousands of people would die.
Since he came to office 14 months ago, police have reported killing about 3,500 people in anti-drug operations. More than 2,000 other people have been killed in drug-related crimes and thousands more murdered in unexplained circumstances, according to police data. The United Nations, the United States and the European Union have condemned alleged rights abuses in Duterte’s drug war, while rights groups have warned he may be orchestrating a crime against humanity.
Duterte said last year he would be “happy to slaughter” three million addicts to fix the drug problem. After France released its statement on Wednesday, Duterte made an evening speech in Manila in which he accused French and other European governments of not understanding the Philippine justice system. “Our revised penal code is retribution. It is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. That is the basic law of the jungle. If you violate and kill, you pay with your life,” Duterte said. Meanwhile, the deputy head of mission at the French embassy, Laurent Legodec, reinforced the message of the statement and called for all deaths in the drug war to be investigated