By Reuters, Aaron B. Recuenco, and Camcer Ordoñez
American special forces are helping the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to end a siege of Marawi City by the Islamic State (IS)-linked Maute Group militants, a US embassy spokesperson in Manila said Saturday.
“They are not fighting. They are just providing technical support,” said Lt. Col. Jo-Ar Herrera, the spokesman of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, confirming the US embassy report.
The seizure of Marawi by hundreds of fighters who have sworn allegiance to Islamic State, including dozens from neighboring countries and the Middle East, has fueled concern that the ultra-radical group is gaining a foothold in Southeast Asia.
“At the request of the government of the Philippines, US special operations forces are assisting the AFP with ongoing operations in Marawi that help AFP commanders on the ground in their fight against Maute and ASG (Abu Sayyaf Group) militants,” the US embassy spokesperson said.
Until now there had been no confirmation that the Philippines had sought US assistance in the battle for Marawi City on the island of Mindanao, which is in its third week.
The spokesperson gave no details of the US involvement. A US P3 Orion surveillance plane was seen flying over the town on Friday, but there has been no evidence that the United States has put troops on the ground there.
The assistance comes after months of strain between the two long-time allies that was stoked by President Duterte’s hostility toward Washington and his pledges to throw US troops out of the country.
Washington deployed special forces soldiers to Mindanao in 2002 to train and advise Philippine units fighting Abu Sayyaf militants in a program that once involved 1,200 Americans.
It was discontinued in 2015 but a small presence remained for logistics and technical support.
The United States and the Philippines have been allies for decades. Their relationship provided Washington with a strategic foothold in Asia, and offered Manila a shield against China’s assertiveness in the region.
13 Marines slain, 40 wounded
As fighting between government forces and the Maute terrorists continues, Col. Edgard Arevalo, chief military information officer, bared that 13 more Marine commandos, including a junior officer who led the operation that led to the confiscation of P79 million cash and checks, were killed in the continuing gun battle to retake Marawi City from the terrorists.
Arevalo, chief military information officer, said the big casualties stemmed from a major engagement that lasted for 14 hours in Barangay Liot Madaya on Friday. He said 40 other soldiers were wounded in the same clash.
The marines were also able to inflict heavy casualties on the ISIS-inspired Maute gunmen, led by Isnilon Hapilon and Omar and Abdullah Maute, according to Arevalo.
Lt. Col. Herrera said the military was validating reports that the two Maute brothers were killed in the battle for control of Marawi.
“We are still awaiting confirmation,” Herrera told a news conference in Marawi City. “We are still validating those reports but there are strong indications.”
“Initial reports indicate that the fierce firefight ensued when the Marines assaulted the reported enemy position at around 3:30 a.m. and the firefight continued until 5 p.m.,” said Arevalo.
One of those killed was Marines 1Lt. Frederick Savellano who was the one who led the assault on a Maute stronghold where some P79 million worth of cash and checks were seized.
The 29-year-old Savellano is a registered nurse who joined the Philippine Marines several years ago via the Naval Officer Candidate Course (NOCC).
A graduate of the United States Marine Officer Basic Course, Savellano was the company commander of 37th Marine Company, Marine Battalion Landing Team (MBLT) 7, and from NOCC Class 21.
Savellano’s death came as shock to relatives, friends, and fellow soldiers as he was reportedly set to wed later this year his fiancée, who is also an officer from the MBLT 2.
It was not immediately clear how many Maute gunmen were killed during that clash since the fighting has resumed, according to Arevalo.
“We salute this enormous display of heroism and raw courage of these fallen Marines in the course of the fight to clear Marawi of the remaining members of the Maute-ISIS Group,” said Arevalo.
Battle for Mapandi Bridge
Also last Friday, at least 16 soldiers were wounded in a fresh firefight when government troops tried to retake Mapandi Bridge in Barangay Mapandi from the Maute Group. The bridge leads to the city proper.
The wounded Marine troopers were transported from Marawi to a medical facility in Iligan City on board military trucks.
On that same day, fighters jets bombed Marawi City’s conflict zone anew, specifically Barangay Bangolo, one of the three remaining villages under the control of the Maute Group.
Maute matriarch arrested
At the heat of the Marawi fight, authorities arrested the matriarch of the Maute brothers late Friday in Barangay Tamboro Cormatan in Masiu, Lanao del Sur while trying to evade police and military cordon, police said.
The Maute matriarch – Orminta Romato Maute, also known as “Farhana” – was with seven other women when she was arrested, said Chief Superintendent Rueben Sindac, Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) police director.
Another report said the group had with them two wounded individuals believed to be relatives of the elder Maute.
Sindac said the Maute matriarch and her companions were on board a Toyota Revo and were in transit when arrested by police. Seized from the suspects were assorted firearms and ammunition.
Authorities had been tracking her down after reports said she was purchasing vehicles and weapons while planning their exit out of Lanao del Sur.
The Maute matriarch was allegedly helping his two sons, Abdullah and Omarkhayyam, in their operations, fighting government forces in Marawi City since May 23 when law enforcers tried to arrest Hapilon. Irate Maranaos have vowed to help hunt down Hapilon and his cohorts, saying their volunteerism is “not only for the money but principally in retaliation to his importation of war (in this city) that made lives more difficult in our community.”
Among the volunteering Maranaos is a retired police senior superintendent whose family was forced to flee to Iligan City and learned lately that his residential house was one of those badly destroyed in the aftermath of the siege.
The Maute brothers’ father, Engr. Cayamora Maute, was apprehended Tuesday morning at a checkpoint in Sirawan, Toril, Davao City, alongside with three members of his Cotabato City-based second family.
The arrested parents had reared and sent their sons Omar and Abdullah to Islamic schools in the Middle East where they purportedly absorbed the philosophy of kital, an orthodox Arabian belief allowing killing in ideological stride.
The captured matriarch’s niece, Rasmia, is married to former Marawi City mayor Sultan Fahad “Pre” Salic, who was arrested by security forces at a police checkpoint in Misamis Oriental last Wednesday.
Ex-mayor Salic and his elder brother, Omar “Solitario” Ali, also a former three-term mayor of Marawi, are among 185 people ordered arrested by the Department of National Defense for alleged involvement in the siege. (With reports from Francis T. Wakefield and Ali G. Macabalang)
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