FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - September 18, 2017 - 4:00pm

The rescue of Fr. Chito Soganub from his Maute captors over the weekend marks the beginning of the end for the terrorist group professing loyalty to the ISIS. The priest spent 117 days in captivity under the most grueling conditions. It is a miracle he survived.

This is a triumph for the careful, painstaking approach adopted by the military in pushing out the terrorists from the city. This approach put primacy on the safety of trapped civilians and hostages held by the terrorists. It might have prolonged the battle and caused the deaths of many soldiers, but most will agree that this approach kept collateral damage to the minimum imaginable.

Fr. Soganub was among those taken hostage when Maute terrorists decided to occupy parts of Marawi City last May 23. The decision was prompted by a police raid attempting to arrest an Abu Sayyaf leader holed up in the city.

In the four months of continuous battle, government forces were able to rescue over a thousand trapped civilians and hostages. The priest, said to be well-loved by the city he served, is the most prominent among them. The priest and another captive were able to escape while their erstwhile captors were engaging attacking troops in an intense gun battle.

On the day the priest was rescued, government forces regained control of what was described as the “command center” of the terrorist force. That denies the residual terrorist force the ability to effectively coordinate in resisting a determined government advance.

The remaining terrorist fighters are trapped. The lake, which is the only possible escape route, is tightly patrolled around the clock by the military. A small force of Maute reinforcements was intercepted some weeks ago and destroyed.

According to military spokesmen, the trapped terrorist groups have resorted to conscripting some of the captives to beef up their severely decimated fighting strength. Between 40 and 80 fighters remain in a small area with about 200 buildings to clear.

With over 670 enemy fighters killed, the remaining force is possibly too weak to stall a determined advance by government forces. They have been fighting for four months. They are low on ammunition and food.

The body count tells us the enemy mustered a force of over 700 men to occupy Marawi and make it the regional seat for a province of the caliphate the ISIS imagines. The project took many years to prepare. Some of the captured fighters confess to being recruited by the Maute group while they were still boys. Preparations for the occupation of the city date back eight years.

It is not an easy feat moving 700 heavily armed men into a city undetected. A force of that size required moving huge amounts of armaments and ammunition, not to mention food stocks to survive a long siege. After the fighting is done, we will have to interview residents of the neighborhoods where Maute fighters deployed and ask them why no one noticed the presence of the terrorist force.

The fighters that occupied parts of Marawi appear primed to battle government forces for an extended period. They surely had training in urban warfare and the fabrication of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to limit the movement of our troops.

The enemy fighters fought remarkably well, considering everything. They managed to resist the best fighting forces government could muster for four months. They took a painful toll of our troops. Over 150 soldiers and policemen were killed in action. Well over a thousand were wounded.

One wonders what the Maute group did with their wounded. There is no evidence they brought in a field hospital to treat their wounded fighters. Isnilon Hapilon himself was wounded in the gun battles. Did they, out of mercy, shoot their seriously wounded comrades to spare them the agony?

No doubt, we are now in the endgame of the battle to retake Marawi. The rescue of Soganub and the capture of the enemy’s “command center” mark a critical development in this battle. The end is truly very near.

The military described this offensive as “the final push” to retake Marawi. We can only hope the ringleaders of this disastrous adventure do not escape the encirclement. They have much to pay for.

Our security forces, too, have some questions to deal with. In the first few days of the occupation, the enemy force was described as comprised of “40 to 60” men. That is clearly a gross underestimation. We have killed well over ten times that number and there are scores still fighting from besieged positions.

How many other armed groups are there in Mindanao capable of pulling the same stunt the Maute group did?

After the smoke of battle clears, we should elicit a reliable estimate from our security managers. The Maute group was preparing to occupy Marawi for years and their preparations appear to have been deliberately ignored by the previous administration – possibly wishing them to simply vanish and not disturb the Bangsamoro project so earnestly pursued by the Noynoy Aquino administration.

After the last bullet is fired in anger in Marawi, we will now have to begin the difficult and expensive task of reconstruction. The terrorists occupied the most built-up area of the city, the better to conduct urban warfare. That area is now basically rubble.

Government estimate of the reconstruction cost has been increased to P50 billion. That is truly costly. But Marawi deserves to be rebuilt, to be restored to life, as a mecca for our quest for peace.


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