U.S. joins battle as Philippines takes losses in besieged city

Debris and fire is seen after OV-10 aircraft released bomb during airstrike in Marawi
U.S. joins battle as Philippines takes losses in besieged city

24 June, 2017

Philippine marines were conducting a house-to-house search for militants allied with the Islamic State group who are still occupying parts of Marawi when the battle erupted Friday, said Lt. Col. Jo-ar Herrera, spokesman for the Philippine army's 1st Infantry Division.

"Their participation is limited to intelligence sharing", he said, declining to give information on how many United States forces were in Marawi City or when they had arrived. "They fought gallantly for the liberation of our Maranao brothers and sisters", Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said.

The U.S. embassy confirmed it had offered support, at the request of the Philippines government, but gave no details.

News that US and Philippine forces were working together is significant, because the country's president, Rodrigo Duterte, has threatened to kick out the USA military.

An Associated Press journalist and photographer saw a U.S. Navy P3 Orion plane hovering in cloudy skies above Marawi on Friday.

It said in a statement it was providing Philippine forces with security assistance and training in the areas of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Mr Duterte, who declared martial law on Mindanao - an island the size of South Korea - after the Islamist fighters overran Marawi, said that under martial law he has authority over the defence department.

Indonesian and Malaysian officials have stepped up security to prevent militants from escaping from Marawi over their shared borders with the Philippines.

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. An estimated 500 to 1,000 civilians are trapped there, some being held as human shields, while others are hiding in their homes with no access to running water, electricity or food.

Also in the list to implement the Bangon Marawi program is the Engineering Brigade of the Philippines military, which has vast experience in introducing infrastructure projects in warn torn communities.

The military said it was making headway in the town but was proceeding carefully so as not to destroy mosques where some of the militants had taken up positions.

The Philippines is majority Christian, but Mindanao has a significant population of Muslims and Marawi City is overwhelmingly Muslim.

"We give premium to the mosques, because this is very symbolic to our Muslim brothers", Herrera said.

One of the main Islamist factions dug in around the heart of the city is the Maute group, a relative newcomer amid the throng of insurgents, separatists and bandits on Mindanao. In the clashes, 21 civilians and 138 Maute members were killed.

"We believe the enemy has strong defensive positions", he said.

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 Islamic State militant group has a presence in almost all provinces across Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority country, the military chief in Jakarta has said. The military plans to observe the country's Independence Day by raising the nation's flag in the battle zone.

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