Philippine aircraft and troops launched on Tuesday a renewed push against Islamist militants entrenched in a southern city, with the aim of clearing the area by the weekend Eid festival, a military spokesman said.
The offensive came amid worry that rebel reinforcements could arrive in the city after Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Fighting in Marawi City has entered a fifth week, and nearly 350 people have been killed, as indicated by an official tally. Fleeing residents have said they have seen scores of bodies in the debris of homes destroyed in bombing and cross-fire.
“We are aiming to clear Marawi by the end of Ramadan,” said military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, as army and police commanders met in nearby Cagayan de Oro city to reassess strategy and operations against the militants, who claim allegiance to ISIS.
But he added: “We are not setting any deadlines knowing the complexity of the battle. We are doing our best to expedite the liberation of Marawi at the soonest time possible.”
The capture of Marawi and the dogged fight to regain control of it has alarmed Southeast Asian nations which fear ISIS – on a backfoot in Iraq and Syria – is trying to set up a stronghold in the southern Philippines that could threaten the whole region.
Padilla said the military aimed to prevent the conflict from escalating after Ramadan ends.
“We are closely watching certain groups and we hope they will not join the fight,” Padilla said.
Some Muslim residents of Marawi said other groups could join the fighting after Ramadan.
“As devout Muslims, we are forbidden to fight during Ramadan so afterward, there may be new groups coming in,” said Faisal Amir, who has stayed on in the city despite the battle.
The battle was intense early on Tuesday as security forces made a push to drive the militants, holed up in Marawi’s commercial district, south towards a lake on the edge of the city.
Planes dropped bombs while on the ground, automatic gunfire was sustained with occasional blasts from bombs and artillery. Armored vehicles fired volleys of shells while the militants responded with gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades.
Fighting later died down as heavy rain fell.
Military sources said troops were attacking the militants from three sides and trying to box them toward the lake.
“We’re gaining ground and we’re expanding our vantage positions,” said Lieutenant Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera, another military spokesman, although he declined to comment on specifics.
“We are moving towards the center of gravity,” he added, referring to the militants’ command and communications center.
An army corporal near the front line told Reuters soldiers were tagging houses and buildings that had been cleared.
“We still have to clear more than 1,000 structures,” he said, adding infantry units were left behind at “cleared” areas to prevent militants from recapturing ground they have lost.
As of Tuesday, the military said 258 militants, 65 security personnel, and 26 civilians had been killed. Hundreds of people are unaccounted for, with many believed to be hiding in the basements of the city.