MARAWI, Philippines (AFP) – Philippine troops pounded militants holding parts of southern Marawi city with air strikes and artillery yesterday as more soldiers were deployed and the death toll rose to more than 300 after nearly a month of fighting.
Fires erupted and dark plumes of smoke rose from enclaves still occupied by the militants as the air force staged bombing runs to support ground troops struggling to dislodge the fighters from entrenched positions, AFP journalists at the scene said.
MG520 attack helicopters and FA50 fighter jets were used in the raids, while sustained bursts of automatic gunfire could be heard in the distance, indicating the intensity of the fighting.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, appearing in public for the first time in nearly a week, said the presence of foreign fighters from the Islamic State (IS) group among the militants in Marawi has made the fighting more difficult.
Duterte’s absence had fuelled speculation about the state of the 72-year-old leader’s health.
Also yesterday, 400 fresh troops were airlifted to Marawi from the central Philippines, ANC television said quoting military officials.
Television footage showed the soldiers bidding goodbye to their families before being flown to the conflict zone.
Hundreds of militants – supported by foreign fighters – rampaged through Marawi, the largely Christian Philippines’ most important Muslim city, on May 23 waving black flags of the IS group.
Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao to counter the attack, which he said was part of a plan by IS to establish a base in the country.
Such a base could be crucial for IS’ ambitions to establish a caliphate in Southeast Asia, analysts say.
The military has said at least eight foreign fighters from Chechnya, Yemen, Malaysia and Indonesia were among the militants killed in the Marawi fighting.