Marawi fighting 'to end soon'
Rebels in southern Philippines resist military assault for seventh day
MARAWI The Philippines military said yesterday that it was close to retaking a southern city held for a seventh day by Islamist militants, as helicopters unleashed more rockets on positions held by the rebels aligned with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The clashes in Marawi City with the Maute militia has become the biggest security challenge of Mr Rodrigo Duterte's presidency, with gunmen resisting air and ground assaults and remaining in control of central parts of a city of 200,000 people.
The military said the rebels may be getting help from "sympathetic elements" and fighters they had freed from jail.
"Our ground commanders have assured that the end is almost there," military spokesman, Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla told reporters.
"We can control who comes in and who comes out, who moves around and who doesn't. And we're trying to isolate all these pockets of resistance."
More than 100 people have been killed, most of them militants, according to the military, and most of the city's residents have fled.
The military said the Maute was still present in nine of the city's 96 barangays or communities.
The group's ability to fight off the military for so long will add to fears that ISIS' radical ideology is spreading in the southern Philippines, and it could become a haven for militants from Indonesia, Malaysia and beyond.
The government believes the Maute carried out its assault before Ramadan to capture the attention of ISIS and earn recognition as a South-east Asian affiliate.
The military's estimates of the size of the rebel force and the extent of its occupation have fluctuated each day.
It has maintained throughout that it is in full control of the situation and says supporters of the Maute were making exaggerated claims on social media.
According to witnesses, men with black headbands typical of ISIS were seen on city streets in recent days. A photograph taken by a resident shows 10 men carrying assault rifles and dressed entirely in black.
A Reuters photographer saw an ISIS flag in an oil drum in an abandoned street yesterday.
Iligan City, 38km away, was overflowing with evacuees and was on lockdown over fears that fighters had sneaked out of Marawi by blending in with civilians.
Some troops tried to eliminate Maute snipers yesterday as others guarded deserted streets, taken back block by block.
Helicopters circled the city and smoke poured out of buildings. Artillery explosions echoed. The military said air strikes were taken on "known and verified enemy positions".
"We are using precision ammunition in our surgical air strikes," said army spokesman, Colonal Edgard Arevalo.
Mr Duterte imposed martial law last week on Mindanao, where both Marawi and Iligan are located, to quell the unrest and wipe out militancy.
He made an unconventional offer on Saturday last week to Muslim separatists and communist rebels to join his fight against extremists, saying he would give them the same pay and benefits as government troops. - REUTERS