Philippine troops yesterday launched fresh air strikes against militants holed up in the besieged southern city of Marawi as the death toll in the fighting topped 200, officials said.
The air strikes targeted buildings in three districts of Marawi City, 800 kilometres south of Manila, where more than 200 militants were still suspected to be hiding, said military spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla.
Padilla said government troops were preparing to raise Philippine flags “in every corner of Marawi” on June 12, when the country marks its independence from more than 300 years of Spanish colonial rule.
“We’re working feverishly to ensure we are able to do that,” he said. “If we are able to successfully accomplish our mission by that day, then that would be the liberation of Marawi.”
The fighting began on May 23, when hundreds of militants went on a rampage after government forces attempted to arrest a local Islamic State leader.
The death toll in the hostilities has risen to at least 204, after the government confirmed yesterday. Troops have killed 138 militants, while at least 21 civilians have been executed by the militants, the army said.
The latest civilian casualty was a 15-year-old boy killed yesterday by a stray bullet allegedly fired by a militant sniper, police said. The boy was hit in the head as he was praying inside a mosque in the village of Datu Saber.
Relatives told police they believed the bullet was intended for soldiers in the area, but the sniper missed his target.
The militants, who come from different groups that pledge allegiance to the Islamic State terrorist movement, are believed to be holding “more or less 100 hostages,” including a Catholic priest.
More than 200,000 residents have been displaced by the fighting, which has left the city in ruins.
President Rodrigo Duterte has declared martial law in the southern region of Mindanao to boost the fight against the militants. Duterte also offered cash rewards for the arrest of the alleged leader of the Islamic State in the Philippines, Isnilon Hapilon, and brothers Abdullah and Omar Maute, who head the main group of militants fighting in Marawi City.
The military denied reports that Hapilon and the Maute brothers have already escaped.
Authorities were also verifying reports that Omar Maute had been killed in an air strike.
“The end game is to have them arrested, if we can arrest them,” Padilla said. “But if we cannot, then to neutralise them, because I guess they will always fight it to the end.”
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