MARAWI, Philippines, June 10, (AFP): United States special forces are providing support to the Philippine military battling to dislodge Islamist militants in a southern city, the US embassy said Saturday, as 13 Filipino marines were killed in fresh fighting. Philippine troops are struggling to defeat hundreds of fighters, who rampaged through Marawi on May 23 flying black flags of the Islamic State (IS) group, and have used civilians as human shields, bomb-proof tunnels and anti-tank weapons to fortify their positions.
Friday’s ferocious, street-to-street gunbattles with the militants saw 13 troops killed, in a dramatic surge in the toll from the conflict, Philippine military spokesmen said. A 15-year-old boy was also killed by a stray bullet as he took part in Friday prayers at a mosque in Marawi as the skirmishes raged outside, an AFP video journalist said. It was among the heaviest fighting seen in mainly Muslim Marawi as the air force battered parts of the city with strikes to support ground troops.
Some 40 marines were wounded in the gunbattles that lasted 14 hours, according to military spokesman Colonel Edgardo Arevalo. As the conflict intensified, the US embassy in Manila said American forces were providing assistance to the Filipino troops, although it declined to give details for security reasons. “At the request of the government of the Philippines, US special operations forces are assisting the (Philippine military) with ongoing operations in Marawi,” the embassy said in a statement. Marawi-based military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jo-ar Herrera confirmed the US help, adding that the special forces were not fighting, but “providing technical support”.
He told AFP Friday’s deaths amounted to the military’s biggest single-day loss in the campaign. “There were intense firefights, house-to-house gunbattles,” Herrera said at a news conference in Marawi earlier, adding that the total number of government troops killed in the conflict was 58. Over 20 civilians have been confirmed killed due to the fighting, according to the government, but the true number is likely to be higher with authorities yet to fully assess the roughly 10 percent of Marawi still being held by the militants.
Tens of thousands have fled Marawi, which is the Catholic country’s most important Muslim city, as the fighting ripped through residential neighbourhoods, with more than 200,000 displaced people now living in precarious conditions and vulnerable to deadly health risks, the International Committee of the Red Cross warned Friday. About 2,000 people are also believed to still be trapped in militantheld areas as insurgents continue to entrench themselves in the city two weeks ito the conflict, which saw them take a Catholic priest hostage, open up two jails and destroy many buildings.
Meanwhile, the Philippine military on Friday asked Facebook to close dozens of accounts linked to Islamist militants who attacked a southern city, saying they were being used for propaganda. Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jo-ar Herrera said the armed forces’ social media unit uncovered 63 Facebook accounts belonging to the jihadists and their supporters. “These 63 accounts are spreading malicious information and misinformation that affect the information landscape and the mindset of every Filipino,” Herrera told a news conference in the southern city of Marawi.