Military officials in the Philippines have found the fight with the Daesh terrorist group in the southern city of Marawi to be tougher than they previously believed as the terrorists are using bomb-proof tunnels, anti-tank weapons, human shields and are familiar with the terrain.
“The advantage of the (enemy) is their mastery of the terrain. They know where even the smallest alleys lead to and they are free to go around,” said Major Rowan Rimas, an operations officer for the marines, AFP reported Wednesday.
“They know where the government forces are coming from and where they are taking cover. They have snipers and their positions are well-defended,” he added.
The Philippines’ Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana also conceded at the start of the deadly conflict that military forces had been taken by surprise when dozens of gunmen emerged on the streets of Marawi following a failed operation to capture one of the militant leaders.
According to military authorities, terrorists poured out of houses in the largest predominantly Muslim city of 200,000 in the largely Catholic country and went on a rampage that included taking a Catholic priest hostage, opening up two jails and destroying many buildings.
Meanwhile, Philippine military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jo-ar Herrera said on Monday that nearly 10 percent of Marawi controlled by the terrorists had many tunnels and basements, which can withstand the impact of 500-pound (227-kilogram) bombs.
“Even mosques here have tunnels,” Herrera said, adding that the Daesh elements were using them to escape bombing strikes by the military as well as to store high-powered armaments. “These are all part of the dynamics of the battlefield that makes it more difficult for us.”
Herrera also said that the gunmen had exploited Philippine military protocol sparing mosques and Islamic schools.
The military initially put the number of the terrorists at nearly 100 but later admitted there were as many as 500. It said that they included a number of foreign elements from countries such as Chechnya, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.
Two weeks after gunmen waving the black flags of the Daesh terrorist group rampaged through Marawi, initial claims by authorities that the conflict would be over in days have given way to warnings of a protracted battle.
Lorenzana said battles with militants in the south in recent years typically led to their escape from the area but that this time they were putting up more resistance.
“Normally, in this kind of conflict, the local fighters will just scamper away and maybe hide in the mountains,” he said while visiting Marawi over the weekend. “But surprisingly, this group has just holed up there and are just waiting to fight it out, maybe to the last.”