MARAWI, Philippines, June 17, (AFP): Philippine troops pounded Islamist militants holding parts of southern Marawi city with air strikes and artillery Saturday as more soldiers were deployed and the death toll rose to more than 300 after nearly a month of fighting. Fires erupted and dark plumes of smoke rose from enclaves still occupied by the militants as the air force staged bombing runs to support ground troops struggling to dislodge the fighters from entrenched positions, AFP journalists at the scene said.
MG520 attack helicopters and FA50 fighter jets were used in the raids, while sustained bursts of automatic gunfire could be heard in the distance, indicating the intensity of the fighting. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, appearing in public for the first time in nearly a week, said the presence of foreign fighters from the Islamic State (IS) group among the militants in Marawi have made the fighting more difficult. “You have a conglomeration there of ISIS fighters from Syria, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lankan and Arabs,” he told soldiers during a visit to a military camp in Butuan city, northeast of Marawi, in the southern region of Mindanao. “We have to use the air assets because we are up against fighters from the Middle East and they have learned the art of brutal killing — they will burn you, behead you,” he said.
Duterte’s absence had fuelled speculation about the state of the 72-year-old leader’s health. Also on Saturday, 400 fresh troops were airlifted to Marawi from the central Philippines, ANC television said quoting military officials. Television footage showed the soldiers bidding goodbye to their families before being flown to the conflict zone. Hundreds of militants — supported by foreign fighters — rampaged through Marawi, the largely Christian Philippines’ most important Muslim city, on May 23 waving black flags of the Islamic State (IS) group. Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao to counter the attack, which he said was part of a plan by IS to establish a base in the country.
Such a base could be crucial for IS’ ambitions to establish a caliphate in Southeast Asia, analysts say. The military has said at least eight foreign fighters from Chechnya, Yemen, Malaysia and Indonesia were among the militants killed in the Marawi fighting.
The overall death toll rose to 329 with 310 — 225 militants, 59 soldiers and 26 civilians — killed in the conflict, according to government figures. The 19 others deaths came from those displaced by the fighting, said Mujiv Hataman, the governor of a Muslim autonomous region in the south.
Hataman said the deaths among the evacuees were caused by severe dehydration from diarrhoea. More than 309,000 people have been been displaced in Marawi and nearby areas, the government said. Many have fl ed to the homes of friends and relatives and others are in evacuation centres. “Our forces are moving towards the heart of the enemy,” regional military spokesman Jo-ar Herrera told reporters in Marawi on Saturday, referring to the heavy fighting under urban conditions. “It’s the centre of gravity. This is where the location of their command and control, the leadership of the enemy.” Ground commanders estimate “more than 100” militants are still holding out in at least four villages in Marawi, military spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla said in Manila.
Meanwhile, Philippine troops have rescued a Vietnamese sailor held hostage for seven months by Islamist militants in the country’s south, the military said Saturday. Hoang Vo, 28, was rescued by troops on Friday after an air strike and artillery fire on an Abu Sayyaf camp in the island of Basilan dispersed the kidnappers, regional military spokeswoman Captain Jo-Ann Petinglay said. She said the sailor was being treated for an unspecified wound on his back. There is no way to independently verify the military’s account of the rescue.
The Abu Sayyaf network has been kidnapping foreigners and locals for years and holding them for ransom on its remote island strongholds in the southern Philippines. Vo was seized last November along with five other Vietnamese crew members of a vessel that was boarded by the militants off Sibago island in the southern region of Mindanao.