MARAWI CITY — (UPDATE 3 – 11:16 p.m.) Residents of this besieged city unable to evacuate earlier have hunkered down, bracing for the worst, as government security forces faced the difficult task of flushing out members of the Maute terror group who continued to fire at will Thursday morning as if to flaunt their continued presence, three days since hostilities broke out.
The army sent about 100 soldiers, including US-trained special forces, to retake buildings and streets held by the gunmen of the Maute group, which has pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
“We’re confronting maybe 30 to 40 remaining from the local terrorist group,” said Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera, a spokesman for the military.
“The military is conducting precise, surgical operations to flush them out … The situation is very fluid and movements are dynamic because we wanted to out-step and out-maneuver them,” he said.
Thousands fled as rebels seized large parts of the city and torched buildings in running battles with government forces that erupted on Tuesday afternoon after a failed raid by security forces on one of the group’s hideouts.
Residents still in the city said in interviews that soldiers have apparently been unable to penetrate the city’s center, including the public market and main roads, where skirmishes first broke out Tuesday afternoon when state security forces went after members of the extremist group.
While the soldiers were able to retake on Wednesday a hospital that the terrorists had earlier surrounded, by Thursday morning residents said many civilians had again been trapped in the hospital because the gunmen men were back at the scene.
Sporadic gunfire could be heard all around as the terrorists apparently put on a “show of force” to signal they were still very much around.
It was slow and dangerous going for troops moving house to house as they repeatedly came under sniper fire.
The military sent in two helicopters with machine guns to flush out rebels and take control of the bridge, one of three operations in the city.
Trucks were being sent to evacuate any remaining civilians. A total of seven government troops, 13 militants and one civilian had been killed since Tuesday, Herrera said.
Media reported at least one air strike late Thursday morning and new fires raging as government forces resumed what the military called “clearing operations.” Mortars were also fired at what were believed to be positions occupied by the Maute group.
Military helicopters continuously flew overhead as gunfire was heard from the city center and black smoke rose from what was reported to be a market.
A Reuters witness could see soldiers crouched behind armored vehicles and walls around lunchtime on Thursday, firing volleys of gunshots towards elevated positions occupied by Maute rebels. Smoke could also be seen on the horizon.
Explosions were heard from the direction of Barangays Sadok, Banggulo and Marinaut.
There were also reports that the extremists may be holding more hostages aside from those they had earlier been reported holding, including a Catholic priest.
The military has appealed since Tuesday to the remaining residents to stay home to avoid being caught in the crossfire.
There has been confusion among government officials on whether the gunmen are “ISIS”, “ISIS-inspired” or simply local groups seeking ISIS recognition and funding to restart a faltering campaign of terror.
The military has not explained how Tuesday’s raid on an apartment hideout went so badly wrong and spiraled into urban warfare.
The operation was aimed at capturing Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the Abu Sayyaf group notorious for piracy, banditry and for kidnapping and decapitating Westerners.
“Based on our intelligence, Isnilon Hapilon is still in the city,” Herrera said.
The Maute group had earlier been dislodged from its biggest base in Butig, Lanao del Sur.
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