Blasts rock besieged city

MARAWI, Philippines: A man rides his motorcycle past shuttered shop fronts sprayed with pro- Islamic State group graffiti yesterday. —AFP

MARAWI, Philippines: Filipinos marked their country's Independence Day by raising the national flag Monday in a southern city where troops pressed assaults to quell a three-week siege by Islamic State group-aligned militants that has left 270 combatants and civilians dead. Many were teary-eyed during the flag-raising ceremonies at the heavily guarded city hall and provincial capital building in Marawi, the heartland of the Islamic faith in the country's south, where hundreds of gunmen went on a deadly rampage on May 23.

Blasts from airstrikes thudded in the distance during the events. While the flag-raising was mainly to mark Independence Day, it also symbolized the reclaiming of city hall and other areas of Marawi by government forces. Policemen roamed a community that troops had wrested back from the militants and festooned abandoned houses with small flags.

Marawi Mayor Majul Gandamra fought back tears as he thanked troops, police and volunteers in the crisis that has turned parts of the previously tranquil lakeside city of more than 200,000 people, most of whom have fled the fighting, into a smoldering battlefield. Villager Janisah Ampao, who fled her home with her husband and two children when the fighting broke out last month, felt a sense of relief and pride when she saw the flag being raised at the provincial capital building. She has been living with other evacuees in a nearby government building that has been turned into an emergency shelter.

"I don't know how we can re-start our lives after the fighting," Ampao said by telephone. "Our city is in ruins, all the people have gone and the stores are closed. I saw on TV that our village has been destroyed." Facing the worst crisis in his yearlong presidency, President Rodrigo Duterte canceled an annual Independence Day diplomatic reception at the presidential palace and skipped a flag-raising ceremony in Manila.

"He doesn't feel like giving a toast, even symbolic, when soldiers are dying and the evacuees and the displaced are in the provinces and in Marawi's margins," Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano told reporters. Philippine flags were also flown at half-staff as the country mourned the killings of 13 marines in a fierce battle in Marawi on Friday. Some of the marines perished in a fire ignited by the militants at the height of the fighting, military officials said. They said 58 soldiers and policemen, 191 militants and 21 civilians have been killed in the three weeks of clashes.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson conveyed independence greetings on behalf of President Donald Trump and the American people, saying the US stands as an ally with the Philippines as it confronts the attacks in Marawi and other terrorist threats. The US military has deployed a spy plane at Manila's request to help provide surveillance to troops battling militants still holed up in a few buildings in Marawi with an unspecified number of civilian hostages. The tough-talking Duterte took an adversarial stance toward former US President Barack Obama, who had criticized his bloody anti-drug crackdown, but his relations with Trump have been markedly better.

The Marawi siege unfolded after a May 23 army raid failed to capture a top terror suspect, Isnilon Hapilon, who has been designated by the Islamic State group as its leader in Southeast Asia. The raid pre-empted a plot by about 500 gunmen waving Islamic State group-style black flags to capture all of Marawi and kill as many Christians as they could, military officials say. Duterte told reporters Sunday that he decided to declare martial law in the southern third of the country to better stop the gunmen from escaping from Marawi or launching new attacks elsewhere.

While he has warned before that the Islamic State group has gained a foothold in the country's south, Duterte said he was still surprised by the magnitude of the violence in Marawi, adding that he has been told that Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was behind the Marawi attack. "I did not realize that it was that bad because now it appears that Baghdadi himself, the leader of the ISIS, has specifically ordered terroristic activities here in the Philippines," Duterte said, without elaborating. ISIS is an abbreviation for the Islamic State group. - AP