Troops discover Maute tunnels

Roel Pareño - The Philippine Star
Troops discover Maute tunnels

Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) chief Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr. yesterday said troops have successfully breached the remaining defensive positions and discovered the tunnels used by the gunmen as bunker and bomb shelters. Roel Pareño/File

ZAMBOANGA CITY , Philippines  – Government troops continued beating back the Islamic State-inspired Maute militants and uncovered two tunnels described as among the insurgents’ last defensive positions in Marawi City.

Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) chief Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr. yesterday said troops have successfully breached the remaining defensive positions and discovered the tunnels used by the gunmen as bunker and bomb shelters.

Galvez said the tunnels were later used by the Maute extremists to dump the bodies of their dead comrades.

“There (was this) stench because of the dead bodies… dumped in the tunnels,” he said.

Galvez said the discovery of the tunnels is an indication that the gunmen are getting desperate and their fight is coming to an end.

“Their tipping point is nearing,” he said.

With bombproof tunnels, anti-tank weapons hidden in mosques, human shields and familiarity with the terrain, the Maute gunmen are proving a far tougher opponent than the military had expected.

The roughly 10 percent of Marawi held by the militants has many tunnels and basements that can withstand 500-pound (227-kilo) bombs, military spokesman Lt. Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera said earlier.

He said even mosques in the city have tunnels used by the militants to escape bombing runs as well as to store high-powered weapons.

The military air strikes have spared mosques and Islamic schools known as madrassas, a limitation exploited by the militants.

Residents had built reinforced bunkers and tunnels underneath their houses after a 1970 Muslim uprising led to large parts of the city being razed.

As the fighting in Marawi entered its fifth week, the Maute numbers continued to dwindle against the military’s superior firepower.

A month ago, about 500 gunmen led by brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute, along with several foreign fighters, stormed into Marawi City.

The fighting in Marawi forced President Duterte to place the entire Mindanao under martial law.

Troops since then have killed about 280 gunmen, recovered nearly 300 assault firearms and regained control of 85 buildings. Many of the high-rise buildings were used as sniper posts to slow down the advance of government forces, the military said.

At least 69 soldiers and policemen and 26 civilians have also perished in the fighting.

Of the 19 out of 96 villages across the lakeside city of 200,000 people that the black flag-waving militants occupied, only four villages remain under their control, according to Armed Forces chief Gen. Eduardo Año.

“They are constricted in a very small area. They’re pinned down,” Año said.

He said three boatloads of gunmen who tried to join the Maute militants were blasted by navy gunboats three days ago in Lanao Lake, which borders Marawi.

The gunmen may have either been militants repositioning from nearby areas or rebel reinforcements from elsewhere, he said.

Galvez added the militants were resorting to using their civilian hostages as “dummy” fighters.

“The terrorists are forcing to arm their hostages to make it appear they still have the numbers and at the same time confuse the soldiers in engaging the terrorists,” Galvez said.

Galvez gave assurance the troops have been trained to discriminate and distinguish their targets.

Año said the battle in Marawi was taking longer than usual because the militants were using civilians as human shields and had no qualms destroying an entire city and killing anyone in their path.

“We can just bomb them away or use napalm bomb to burn everything, but then, we will not be any different from them if we do that,” he said.

Opposition lawmaker Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman decried the “mounting deaths and destruction in Marawi City,” which he said are the result of President Duterte’s declaration of martial law and suspension of the writ of habeas corpus.

“Thirty days of martial law in Marawi City and the rest of Mindanao have aggravated the situation in Marawi City to inordinately horrific and miserable proportions,” Lagman said. 

“All of this horror and misery after the declaration of martial law could have been avoided if the President did not precipitately and unwarrantedly declare martial law and the suspend the writ which gave the armed forces and police authorities the unnecessary impetus to implement military rule with disastrous consequences,” he said.

Lagman said the rising number of casualties, extensive damage to private properties and displacement of civilians “were the results of the excessive military offensive through airstrikes and land assaults.”  – AP, Jess Diaz

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