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Philippines launches offensive in Marawi, aims to end battle

Police check for any Manila attack plan

ILIGAN, Philippines: President Rodrigo Duterte gestures as he mimics “slitting of the throat” during a speech to evacuees from Marawi at an evacuation center in on the southern island of Mindanao yesterday. Duterte apologized for aerial bombings that have destroyed a large part of the Philippines’ main Muslim city, but said it was necessary to crush self-styled Islamic State followers. – AFP

MARAWI CITY: Philippine aircraft bombed rebel positions and ground troops launched a renewed push against Islamist militants holed up in a southern city yesterday, with the aim was to wrap up the fighting before the weekend Eid festival, a spokesman said. The offensive came amid worry that rebel reinforcements could arrive after Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Fighting in Marawi City has entered a fifth week, and nearly 350 people have been killed, according to an official count. Fleeing residents have said they have seen scores of bodies in the debris of homes destroyed in bombing and cross-fire.

“We are aiming to clear Marawi by the end of Ramadan,” said military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, as army and police commanders met in nearby Cagayan de Oro city to reassess strategy and operations against the militants, who claim allegiance to Islamic State. “We cannot definitely say when we could end this because we are fighting door to door and there are booby traps which pose danger to our troops.”

The seizure of Marawi has alarmed Southeast Asian nations which fear Islamic State – on a backfoot in Iraq and Syria – is trying to set up a stronghold in the southern Philippines that could threaten the whole region. Padilla said the military aimed to prevent the conflict from escalating after Ramadan ends. “We are closely watching certain groups and we hope they will not join the fight,” Padilla said. Some Muslim residents of Marawi said other groups could join the fighting after Ramadan. “As devout Muslims, we are forbidden to fight during Ramadan so afterwards, there may be new groups coming in,” said Faisal Amir, who has stayed on in the city despite the battle.

Fighting was intense early yesterday as security forces made a push to drive the militants, entrenched in Marawi’s commercial district, south towards a lake on the edge of the city. Planes flew overhead, dropping bombs while on the ground, automatic gunfire was sustained with occasional blasts from bombs and artillery. Armored vehicles fired volleys of shells while the militants responded with gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades. An army corporal near the front line told Reuters soldiers were tagging houses and buildings that had been cleared.

“We still have to clear more than 1,000 structures,” he said, adding infantry units were left behind at “cleared” areas to prevent militants from recapturing ground they have lost. As of Monday, the military said 257 militants, 62 soldiers and 26 civilians had been killed. Hundreds of people are unaccounted for, believed to be hiding in the basements of the city.

Meanwhile, police said yesterday they were checking reports that militants might be plotting bombs in the capital, but they had no confirmation of any plan and the public should not be alarmed by a leaked police report on possible attacks. Police in Manila have been on high alert since fighting erupted last month in Marawi. “We have no confirmation whatsoever of any terror attack in Manila,” Police Director Oscar Albayalde told ANC television, responding to concern about a leaked police intelligence report warning of bomb attacks that spread on social media.

He said the leaked report was genuine but said it contained raw information that was distributed to police units to check and seek verification. The internal memo, dated June 16, said police had information that members of the Maute group – the Islamic State-linked faction that is fighting in Marawi – were planning to set off bombs in the capital. “The content of the memorandum is meant for validation and confirmation, it’s not meant to scare the public,” Albayalde said, adding that he had ordered an investigation into how the document was leaked. He said police were “on top of the situation” and people should not be alarmed. – Reuters


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