DAMASCUS, SYRIA (10:15 P.M.) – Nearly 40 days after the battle for Marawi began, the Armed Forces of the Philippines have finally ISIS contained within less than 10% of the city after receiving tactical aid by US advisers and weapons from Russia.
Marawi, once home to 200,000 people, has now become a ghost town where thousands of soldiers are battling to retake the last four neighborhoods under jihadist control.
Between 100 and 120 besieged jihadist militants are estimated to be bogged down in the dwindling pocket with some as young as 16 years old fighting for the ISIS-linked Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups.
Thus far, at least 300 ISIS fighters have been killed while 44 non-combattants have suffered an untimely death. Although the official number of dead government soldiers is set at 82, the real death toll is believed to be at least equivalent to ISIS’ own casualties.
On Saturday alone, ISIS claimed to have shot dead 6 soldiers with sniper fire in Marawi.
Every day, troops make announcements through loudspeakers for the militants to “surrender now or die”. To the few trapped civilians, they offer help to get out of the conflict area.
Meanwhile, authorities say they believe the insurgents are running out of supplies and ammunition, but they say there is no deadline to retake the city.
The southern Philippines has been marred for decades by insurgency and banditry. But the intensity of the battle in Marawi and the presence of foreign fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia, Yemen and Chechnya fighting alongside local militants has raised concerns that the region may be becoming a Southeast Asian hub for Islamic State as it loses ground in Iraq and Syria.
As troops poured in to contain the siege, few were expecting a slow, difficult and unfamiliar urban war. “We are used to insurgencies… but a deployment of this magnitude, this kind of conflict is a challenge for our troops,” said Lt Col Christopher Tampus, one of the officers commanding ground operations in Marawi.
He said progress in clearing the city has been hindered by militant fire and booby traps like gas tanks rigged with grenades.
The fighters are holding around 100 hostages, according to the military, who have been forced to act as human shields, take up arms or become sex slaves.
Military aircraft drop bombs on the militant zone almost every day. From the outskirts of the city, mortar teams take aim at what they call “ground zero”, the heart of the conflict.