Marawi siege: a cat-and-mouse game

MARAWI CITY (MindaNews/13 June) – Almost a month since the start of hostilities, Philippine security officials seem to agree that the Maute Group now fighting government forces for control of the city is no pushover.

In a press briefing in Cagayan de Oro City on Sunday (June 11), assessments made by defense officials highlighted the limits set by, among others, the terrain on prosecuting the offensive against the Maute Group.

The briefing followed the death of 13 Marines in an ambush, so far the highest number of casualties in a single encounter with the armed group. Ten days before the ambush, “friendly fire” from a combat chopper killed 11 soldiers in the downtown area.

President Duterte and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana at the 4th Infantry Division headquarters in Cagayan de Oro City on 11 June 2017. MindaNews photo by H. MARCOS C. MORDENO

Yet despite mounting casualties and indications that the Maute Group has shown resiliency in the face of superior military firepower and manpower, top generals of the Armed Forces expressed confidence it’s only “a matter of time”  before the militants are driven out or eliminated since they are isolated in two buildings. “Konting pasensya lang (Just a little patience),” Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Eduardo Ano said during Sunday’s press briefing.

Ano said that although “we don’t want to lose men” the statistics (casualties) is “acceptable” in that they are fighting a hybrid war, that is, a combination of conventional and non-conventional warfare. “We’re pushing them at the expense of losing the lives of soldiers.”

He said the presence of trapped civilians was slowing down their offensive. Besides, he said, “they (Maute Group) don’t play by the rules.” Nonetheless, he claimed that government is “winning and gaining.”

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said they were constrained by “some laws” and concern for the safety of civilians thus casualties could not be avoided.

As to plans to arm civilians who will defend their communities from attacks, Lorenzana said it will be done after the crisis is over. He said they have to ensure that the firearms won’t go to the Maute Group.

Soldiers wounded in action in Marawi City at the 4th Infantry Division headquarters in Cagayan de Oro City (11 June 2017). MindaNews photo by H. MARCOS C. MORDENO

For his part, Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez, chief of the Western Mindanao Command, said it appears that the Maute Group had made preparations to occupy high structures. He said it took them three days to recapture the buildings fronting Banggolo Bridge because the underground tunnels there serve as a “rat hole” for the attackers. “The terrain is theirs.”

Galvez said the same bridge puts government forces at a disadvantage because they have to cross it from a lower position, making them easy targets for snipers.

He said they observed the calibrated use of force before resorting to artillery and aerial bombardment. He noted that even artillery has proved ineffective, as the walls of the buildings are impenetrable by rockets and 105 mm howitzers.

Lorenzana said that whether the aerial bombardment would continue or stop will be up to the ground commander, in this case, Galvez of Westmincom.

But the secretary hinted the use of heavy armaments isn’t going to end soon. “We will use everything at our disposal to end the war.”

Soldiers man a checkpoint in Marawi City on 12 June 2017, MindaNews photo by H. MARCOS C. MORDENO

On Monday, the country’s 119th Independence Day anniversary and the timeframe set by the military to “gain headway” against the ISIS-inspired group, artillery and aerial bombardment continued to rock areas around two kilometers away from the Lanao del Sur provincial capitol.

Just two weeks ago, or on May 31, the military showed reporters a map indicating areas of Marawi which government had regained “control” of. The portions being bombed on Monday fall within these areas.

If the conflict continues to drag on to the point of stalemate, so would the bombardment, although the military is now banking on technical assistance from the US for its “surgical operations” against a group that so far has exploited cat-and-mouse tactics to its advantage.

But even President Rodrigo Duterte himself has conceded that leveling Marawi with bombs and artillery will exact a heavy political cost meaning the possibility of more and more residents joining the ranks of the Maute Group, or at least sympathizing with its own brand of Islam. He knows the stupidity of burning the house in order to kill a rat. (H. Marcos C. Mordeno/MindaNews)