An air strike on Muslim rebels holed up in a southern Philippine city has killed 11 government troops, the armed forces said yesterday, in a major blow to the country’s bid to end its biggest internal security crisis in years.
The bombing accident happened on Wednesday, when one of two planes bombing rebel positions missed its target in the heart of Marawi, where ground troops have been battling pro-Islamic State group militants holed up in buildings for nine days.
The incident came during what was the first offensive deployment of fixed-wing aircraft in the nine-day operation, aimed at flushing out the Muslim gunmen who have defied expectations by clinging on through days of ground assaults and helicopter rocket attacks.
“Sometimes in the fog of war a lot of things could happen. Accidents happen, like this,” Philippine Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana told a news conference.
“It’s very sad to be hitting our own troops,” he added. “There must be a mistake somewhere, either someone directing from the ground, or the pilot.”
The Maute group has been a fierce enemy of a military with superior firepower and greater troop strength. The government is concerned that the group’s brazen attack and its resilience could strike a chord with the Islamic State group leadership in the Middle East and win its endorsement as its Southeast Asian affiliate.
The deaths of the soldiers takes the number of security force members killed to 38, with 19 civilians and 120 rebels killed in the battles in Marawi over the nine days.
Lorenzana said militants who were Saudi, Malaysian, Indonesian, Yemeni and Chechen were among eight foreigners killed in the fighting, in what experts say is a sign that the Philippines could have a major problem on its hands.
An exodus of residents from Marawi started on May 23, when the Maute rebels ran amok, torching and seizing buildings, stealing police weapons and vehicles, taking hostages and freeing jailed rebels to rejoin their fight.
The military yesterday added 21 armored vehicles and a third battalion of troops to the operation to put an end to the occupation.
Lorenzana said the military might suspend air strikes, describing the rebels as a small force that “cannot hold that long.”
Bombardments by OV-10 light attack aircraft were carried out for more than an hour early yesterday. Troops engaged rebel snipers, as helicopters circled identifying targets.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte yesterday made no mention of the killing of the soldiers in a speech he gave at the Malacanang Presidential Palace.
The Maute group was being given too much credit and the occupation of Marawi was the work of the Islamic State group, and planned a long time ago, he said.
“You know, the rebellion in Mindanao, it’s not Maute, it’s purely ISIS,” he said, using one of the Islamic State group’s acronyms.
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