COTABATO CITY (MindaNews/23 May) — Suspected members of the Maute group ambushed Tuesday troops from the 1st Infantry Division and policemen in downtown Marawi City and took control of parts of the area causing panic among residents.
Retired colonel Tatar Boriongan, Lanao Del Sur Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office chief said the clash erupted around 2pm at the lower portion of the Mindanao State University Compound in Marawi City’s Basak Malulut village.
“Civilians now are in panic, there is tension in many corners of the downtown area, so we advised the public to stay in their houses as situation is still unpredictable,” Boriongan said.
He said even their team could not get out of the office due to reports that the Maute group had put up checkpoints.
He added they were still trying to ascertain if there had been civilian casualties.
Lt. Col. Joar Herrera, spokesperson of the 1st Infantry Division said they conducted law enforcement operation on Tuesday afternoon together with police forces in the province in response to reports that suspected terrorists led by Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon were conducting community organizing among residents.
But upon reaching Basak Malulut gunfire greeted the government forces forcing them to fire back, Herrera said.
As of Tuesday afternoon there were no reports of casualties on either side.
The armed group has reportedly taken control of Barangays Saber, Sarimanok, Mapandi, Amai Pakpak, the area near the provincial jail, Malutlut, and Calookan.
Resident Norhanidah Macatoon posted on Facebook photos seemingly grabbed from a CCTV footage in her house, of armed men with high-powered firearms wearing camouflage parading near Masjid Abubakar Markaz where the heavy clash took place.
“Allahu Akbar! Brothers and Sisters please stay in your houses,” she said.
A flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was hoisted inside Amai Pakpak Hospital, which is near the city hall and the Army’s brigade station, a report confirmed by the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Humanitarian Emergency Action Response Team (ARMM-HEART).
“It caused panic (among) civilians inside the hospital but none of them was used as shields by the armed group. They only raised the black flag there,” said Abul Alibasa, a resident of Marawi city who is monitoring the developments.
“There is also violence happening near Haifah Palace of Calookan of Marawi city,” Alibasa said.
“All of the physicians and nurses on duty there are safe and okay per our communication. Employees are in hiding. May mga sundalo na daw duon sa may (There are soldiers at the) gate. Sana manegotiate nila (I hope they can negotiate) peacefully. Please spare the hapless patients at the hospital,” said Omai Atar, wife of Marawi’s sultan and an employee of Amai Pakpak hospital.
She said it would appear that the attacks in various parts of the city were simultaneously done.
“I heard bombs and gunfire. The ISIS flag was raised in our hospital,” Dr. Sainuddon Moti said.
When asked how many patients were inside the hospital, he could not give a figure.
“But they are okay, they are okay,” assured Atar.
The movement of the armed group within the city caused traffic congestion, said Drieza Lininding on Facebook.
“The Marawi City jail is also under siege. Oh my Allah, spare my family and relatives from any harm,” Lininding added.
Maulana Macadato, who was inside his residence during the siege, was able to take hold of an ISIS flag carried by the group.
He said it would appear that the attackers were controlling the traffic.
“Meanwhile, as conflict escalates, we also have power interruption,” said Javier Alonto, another resident.
Some teachers were able to get out of MSU and flee to Iligan City, about 40 kilometers away from Marawi.
Calls for peaceful resolution
Several Maranaos living in Marawi and other areas posted #savemarawi and #prayforMarawi on social media to call attention to the situation.
Mino Macalandap, a residenti, posted: “It may have gone beyond man’s control. I can only offer my prayers for my Ranao.”
Akram Latip, a native of Lanao Sur, opined: “The best solution for Marawi City now is for the AFP to disengage the ISIS Group. If they push through with the military operation the city will be left with total destruction. Let the Local Executives, Ulama, Elders and other influential people talk with the ISIS Group and allow them to leave in peace. That’s the best way to protect the civilians and avoid more casualties and destruction.”
“Please keep the civilians safe in Marawi City. I call on the government to help the civilians evacuate the area safely. Many of the students are trapped in their schools, among them are my relatives. I pray to Allah swt to please keep them safe from harm,” said Maisara Damdamun, a commissioner of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission.
“As the city becomes a battleground between armed groups and government forces, the Iligan-Marawi highway has been closed, prompting fears of a food shortage. I fear for the women and children who might be caught in the crossfire. And I pray for the safety and protection of MSU students, faculty, administration officials and staff and their families, and other residents there. May this disturbance be a short one,” said James Mante, an alumnus of MSU.
Others posted tips on how to keep themselves safe.
“Let us all pray for the fast resolution of the crisis,” Marawi-based lawyer Adom Macarambon pleaded.
Fear and anger
ARMM Governor Mujiv Hataman called for an emergency meeting and activated a technical management group monitoring developments in Marawi.
In a statement Tuesday, Hataman said “the regional government of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao has been receiving reports of firefighting across Marawi City between an unidentified group of armed men and government security forces.
“Words might seem useless right now, as no words can express what we feel as we share in the fear and anger of our people. We strongly condemn these acts of terror committed against the people of Marawi City and swear to take immediate action as necessary.
“Marawi City is known as the Philippines’ Islamic City, but it is home to people of different histories, different beliefs. That these acts of terror are happening in a diverse community bound by mutual respect and a shared commitment to peace is a travesty.
“Any group who sows terror and then dares to say that they do it in the name of Islam should be ashamed. Any man who claims to fight for a just cause, yet dares to incite violence a few days before the Holy Month of Ramadhan is a monster whose words belie his actions.
“The regional government stands in solidarity with the city of Marawi in these dark times. We have won many struggles together and we will stop at nothing to bring these terrorists to justice and win back the peace in your beloved city and in the Bangsamoro.”
In a statement Tuesday, the Armed Forces’ Western Mindanao Command identified the attackers as members of the Maute group.
“At 5pm, government forces were able to contain majority of the militants in one area, however, some of their sympathizers conducted diversionary tactics in other locations to divide the attention of the reinforcing AFP personnel.
“Operations are still ongoing and other details cannot yet be revealed so as not to compromise operational security.”
Wesmincom urged people not to post on social media “information that would tend to exacerbate the situation. Especially photos and videos on the movements of our troops and on terrorist propaganda circulating through social media.”
“We will provide pertinent updates as soon as advisable,” it added.
The Maute group, which has claimed to embrace the ISIS cause, has been the target of military and police operations in recent months in Butig and Piagapo towns in Lanao del Sur. (Ferdinandh Cabrera and Violeta M. Gloria/MindaNews)