Philippine aircraft yesterday bombed rebel positions and ground troops launched a renewed push against Muslim militants holed up in the southern city of Marawi and a military spokesman said the aim was to wrap up the fighting before the weekend Eid al-Fitr.
The offensive came amid worry that rebel reinforcements could arrive after Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Fighting in Marawi has entered a fifth week and nearly 350 people have been killed, according to an official count.
Fleeing residents have said they have seen scores of bodies in the debris of homes destroyed in bombing and crossfire.
“We are aiming to clear Marawi by the end of Ramadan,” said Philippine military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, as army and police commanders met in the nearby city of Cagayan de Oro to reassess strategy and operations against the militants, who claim allegiance to the Islamic State group.
“We cannot definitely say when we could end this because we are fighting door to door and there are booby traps which pose danger to our troops,” he said.
The seizure of Marawi has alarmed Southeast Asian nations which fear the Islamic State — 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 afterwards, there may be new groups coming in,” said Marawi resident Faisal Amir, who has stayed on in the city despite the battle.
Fighting was intense early yesterday as security forces made a push to drive the militants, entrenched in Marawi’s commercial district, south towards a lake on the edge of the city.
Aircraft flew overhead, dropping 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.
An army corporal near the front line told reporters that soldiers were tagging houses and buildings that had been cleared.
“We still have to clear more than 1,000 structures,” he said, adding that infantry units were left behind at “cleared” areas to prevent militants from recapturing ground they have lost.
As of Monday, the military said that 257 militants, 62 soldiers and 26 civilians had been killed.
Hundreds of people are unaccounted for, believed to be hiding in basements.
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