Manila – Thirteen Philippine marines were killed in a gun battle with Islamist militants in Marawi City, the military said Saturday, as the United States joined an offensive to break a terrorist siege of the southern city.
Forty troops were also wounded in the 14-hour firefight on Friday in Marawi City, 800 kilometres south of Manila, in the biggest single-day loss for government forces in the 19-day siege, said marine Colonel Edgard Arevalo, a military spokesman.
Arevalo said fighting resumed Saturday as troops pushed their advance into three districts where more than 200 militants were still holed up.
US special forces were helping provide intelligence to the Philippine military, but were not involved in combat operations, said Lieutenant Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera, an army brigade spokesman.
“Their participation is limited to intelligence sharing,” he said, declining to give information on how many US forces were in Marawi City or when they had arrived.
The slain marines were on an operation to rescue about 100 hostages held by the militants, who set off improvised explosive devices and fired rocket-propelled grenades at the advancing troops, Herrera said.
“There was an intense, house-to-house firefight between the marines and the local terrorist group,” he told a televised press conference in Marawi City. “We have incurred 13 killed in action.”
The gunmen were using the hostages as human shields, hiding in mosques and utilizing an underground tunnel network in the city, making it difficult for troops to manoeuvre, he added.
“We believe the enemy has strong defensive positions,” he said. “We have to go back to the tactical map for us to make some adjustments in our offensive.”
The US Embassy said the US special operations forces were dispatched to help in the crisis “at the request of the government of the Philippines.”
It also did not give details on the assistance, but reporters on the ground have spotted a US Navy P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft flying over Marawi City since Friday.
The heavy fighting occurred as police arrested the mother of two brothers leading the militants, who come from different local groups that have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State terrorist movement.
Ominta Maute, who uses the alias Farhana, was arrested on Friday with nine other people, including two wounded men, in the town of Masiu in Lanao del Sur province, 23 kilometres south of Marawi City.
“Farhana was said to be buying vehicles and firearms for their escape outside Lanao del Sur province,” said Chief Superintendent Theodore Sindac, a regional police director.
“Several high-powered firearms and improvised explosive devices were confiscated from their possession,” Sindac added.
Farhana’s arrest was expected to have “an impact” on the local terrorists because she was allegedly providing logistical and financial support to them and facilitating links to international organizations, Herrera said.
On Tuesday, police arrested the Maute brothers’ father, who has been transferred to a Manila detention facility amid fears that militants might attempt to rescue him.
“This is part of our tactical plan to neutralize all terrorists, including their supporters,” Herrera said, referring to the arrests of the parents of Abdullah and Omar Maute, who were leading the militants.
Troops were verifying reports that Omar and another brother, Madie, have been killed in separate exchanges of fire and military airstrikes in Marawi, he added.
The crisis in Marawi City began when militants went on a rampage after government forces attempted to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, tagged as the leader of the Islamic State in the Philippines.
The fatalities on Friday brought the death toll from fighting to 217. The ongoing conflict has displaced more than 200,000 residents and left Marawi City in ruins.