Troops press for Maute end

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GOVERNMENT forces continued to press their offensive Sunday against the remnants of the Maute group terrorists that overran Marawi City, clearing 60 more buildings previously used by the extremists.

The military estimated there were only 60 terrorists left in the city, after killing 405 of them since fighting broke out on May 23. 

As the fighting entered its ninth week, government officials warned residents not to return to their homes yet as their safety could not be guaranteed.

Philippine troops in Marawi City. AFP

At least one of the Maute brothers, Abdullah, was said to be leading the remaining terrorists.

As of Saturday, government casualties had reached 95, while civilians killed by the terrorists stood at 45.

Armed Forces public affairs office chief Col. Edgard Arevalo sad 1,723 civilians have been rescued from the battle zone. 

Fighting broke out in Marawi City after government troops tried to arrest Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon and the Islamic State “emir” in Southeast Asia on May 23. Hapilon is still at large, and it was unclear if he was still in Marawi City.

The Palace on Sunday urged Marawi residents to wait for the fighting to stop before returning to their homes in the war-torn city.

“We understand the sentiments of the residents of Marawi wanting to return home after being forced to flee from the city,” said presidential apokesman Ernesto Abella.

“The government, however, is concerned with the safety and welfare of all civilians, especially women and children,” said Abella.

“There is no assurance that areas outside the main battle zone are already safe to live in, as cases of stray bullet victims have been reported. In addition, the clearing of the entire city of Marawi of IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and booby traps left by terrorists, unexploded ordnance and other explosives is still ongoing,” said Abella.

“The danger and risks these pose still remain high,” said Abella.

“For the safety of everyone, it is better to just wait for the end of hostilities and the completion of clearing operations,” said Abella.

On Saturday, Lanao del Sur Vice Gov. Mamintal Adiong Jr. urged organizers of the so-called “Occupy Marawi” to think twice before they force their way into the battle-scarred city as the plan would put people’s lives in danger.

“They said they already want to go home. We all want to go home, but how can we? The fighting is continuing,” Adiong said.

Adiong said unless the military gave its clearance, the safety of civilians who would return home could not be guaranteed.

For his part, Lt. Col. Jo-ar Herrera, spokesperson for Task Force Marawi,  said those planning to go back to Marawi that the fighting has not stopped.

“Even in the capitol, which is considered relatively safe because it is outside of the main battle area, there are people being hit by stray bullets,” Herrera said.

A group of women earlier said they planned to head back to the city on July 24, the day President Rodrigo Duterte was to deliver his second State of the Nation Address.

“Any right-minded Maranao and internally displaced person should go if only to show the world that we are coming home. We have been suffering in evacuation centers,” said Bai Sittie Marohomsar, a 52-year-old evacuee who echoed sentiments typically expressed by others displaced by the Marawi conflict.

Marohomsar said they just want to go home. 

“We are not going to kill anyone … we are not going to fight with the government,” she said during a debriefing by a group of women in a Cagayan de Oro City hotel on Thursday.

Adiong said he would help people return home, “but not now, not until the military gives clearance.”

Adiong said some quarters were taking advantage of the situation to push their own agenda and that certain civil society organizations, which he did not identify, “were not thinking about the welfare of the people.”

“Please do not inject politics into this crisis. This is not the time to be politicking,” he said.

Adiong said stray bullets have “rained” on the capitol and wounded at least three people since fighting between government forces and Islamic State-inspired gunmen from the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups erupted on May 23.

Earlier, Australian journalist Adam Harvey was the first stray bullet victim. He survived a bullet to the neck.

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