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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Battle for Marawi proves struggle for Philippines' seasoned troops

The country's marines, army and special forces are experts at fighting their opponents in the jungle or in the woody mountain ranges that dominate the countryside in the southern island of Mindanao. But they have struggled to adapt to the urban warfare and the defensive tactics of the Maute militants

Philippine troops in the streets of Marawi. Florian Neuhof for The National
Philippine troops in the streets of Marawi. Florian Neuhof for The National

The warplane dipped its wing and plunged towards the city beneath, the angry hum of its propeller blades growing louder as the pilot homed in on the plane's target before releasing its ordinance and pulling the twin-engined Bronco ground attack aircraft out of its dive.

A solitary bomb slammed into the ground seconds later.

Smoke billowed upon impact, and a crashing explosion rang across the lush farmland surrounding the embattled city of Marawi, where the Philippine military has been fighting to flush out ISIL-affiliated militants known as the Maute Group since May.

For the past four months, the Philippine air force has been pounding Marawi daily, smoothing the way for soldiers on the ground but reducing much of the city to rubble in the process.

A pair of Broncos had been circling above Marawi for a while, alternating between swooping dive bomb attacks and spiralling into the sky to gain altitude. A little later, Korean-made F-50 attack jets roared low over the desolate streets of Marawi to deliver to deliver their deadly payload.

As the ground shook from the bomb blast, soldiers readied themselves for yet another push towards the centre of Marawi, where the Maute Group has been hemmed into a shrinking pocket around a mosque near a lake.

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The military said on Sunday it had captured the Maute Group's command centre, in a deadly operation against the mosque and another building that began on Saturday. Officials also said troops had rescued a Roman Catholic priest and another civilian who were among dozens of people abducted at the start of the militants' attack on Marawi in May.

In gruelling urban warfare, Philippine troops have fought to reclaim the city in deadly house-to-house fighting, often battling for days to take a single building. After air strikes soften up enemy defences, the soldiers advance to take a dozen or so buildings a day.

The troops are seasoned veterans of the various Islamist insurgencies that have plagued Mindanao, the southern Philippines island where the country's Muslim minority is found. The military is hunting Abu Sayyaf, another ISIL- affiliate, in western Mindanao and the nearby Sulu Archipelago. Until recently, it fought the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a powerful insurgent group demanding more autonomy for Mindanao's Muslims.

The country's marines, army and special forces are experts at fighting their opponents in the jungle or in the woody mountain ranges that dominate the countryside in Mindanao. But they have struggled to adapt to the urban warfare and the defensive tactics of the Maute.

"I've been in the service for seventeen years, and this is the first time I experienced this kind of fighting," says Sergeant Mitchell Bonilla, a weather-beaten, lean marine with a crew cut and a wispy beard.

"In the forest, our enemies had nowhere to take cover, but here in Marawi they have cover even from the airstrikes. We have to go building by building," adds his comrade, Sergeant Sandy Losabio.

Sergeant Bonilla and Sergeant Losabia's unit was based in Tawi-Tawi, an island near Malaysia. When the Maute Group took over Marawi on May 23, the marines scrambled into action. Only eighteen hours after they got their marching orders, they were on a plane to Mindanao, and joined the fight on the fifth day of the battle.

The militant group, led by brothers Abdullah and Omar Maute, took control of Marawi after security forces failed to capture Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon in a botched raid on his hideout in the city.

The Mautes, who have been held responsible for last year's bombing in Davao, the home city of president Rodrigo Duterte, and who last year also beheaded four captives, seized on the opportunity to make their mark on the history of insurgency in Mindanao.

Several hundred of their fighters expelled government forces and roamed the streets, killing policemen and Christian civilians, burning a church and taking hostages. The city's 200,000 inhabitants took flight, and most remain scattered in makeshift displacement camps near the city, or have moved in with relatives living outside of Marawi.

Army, marine and special forces units have since reduced the Maute Group's hold on Marawi to an area of no more than eighteen hectares on the shores of Lake Lanao, held by only around 80 fighters, says army Colonel Romeo Brawner.

In the process, the military has lost around 150 soldiers and killed around 800 militants, claims the colonel.

Standing in front of a ruined house near an intersection in a residential part of Marawi, First Lieutenant Chis Say Billano gives insight into the intensity of the fighting.

"It took us two weeks to take this building," he tells The National. The insurgents held back his troops with sniper fire from heavily fortified defensive positions, and escaped into tunnels to avoid airstrikes. The Mautes also extensively mined the city with improvised explosive devices.

Some of the opponents the marines face are minors, says the lieutenant.

"When we take a building we sometimes find video cameras they have left behind, and we watch the footage. I saw a clip of a small boy with a cevlar helmet and a gun that was bigger than [him]," says Lt Billano.

The soldiers have slowly adapted to this new way of fighting, but their progress comes at a price. The deserted streets of Marawi are lined with facades battered by gunfire and disfigured by grenades that have punched through the walls. Roofs are collapsed from airstrikes and some houses have been reduced to rubble.

In the city centre, even fewer buildings are left standing, as air and ground forces pummel an enemy that can retreat no further.

Trapped and fighting a losing battle, Marawi is shaping up to be a crushing defeat for the Mautes. But the insurgents could still win the propaganda war it is waging for the hearts and minds of Mindenao's Muslims — as the military is well aware.

"Marawi is an Islamic city; the Maute Group hopes that the [military] siege will trigger a more general uprising. The propaganda of the group is to convince the local population that the destruction is caused by the military," says Col Brawner.

The troops fighting in the city are aware that a parallel battle is being fought in Marawi. But with the remnants of the Maute Group still lodged in the city centre, there is little they can do but to prevent further destruction.

"The people of Marawi are very sensitive," shrugs Lt Billano, before he collects his men and heads back to his frontline position.

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