MARAWI CITY – When Philippine troops advanced on positions held by Islamist militants here last week, they were caught in a kill zone.
Technical Sergeant Mahamud Darang said his armored carrier came under fire from a black-clad militant firing rocket-propelled grenades as a column of troops crossed the Agus River toward the commercial center here, an area held by the militants since May 23.
The first grenade hit the ground in front of them, Darang told Reuters. He then spotted the shooter, just before he fired again.
“He was on the third floor of a building. Then the second one came right into the vehicle and blew up,” said Darang, speaking from a hospital bed, his head and shoulders bandaged from shrapnel wounds. One soldier died and Darang and some of the others were wounded.
Bleeding, the 21-year Army veteran ordered his comrades to dismount from the burning vehicle and take cover in a nearby building. The four soldiers were rescued later and taken to hospital.
The rest of the contingent also came under withering fire from militants in buildings, five to ten stories high, as they crossed the low-lying Mapandi Bridge over the river. Some were hit by Molotov cocktails.
Thirteen soldiers in all were killed and about 40 injured in the 14-hour battle last June 9, a major setback to government forces and a signal that the battle to recapture the city from an estimated 150-200 Islamic State militants will be difficult.
President Duterte has said a couple of times that the battle for this city would be over in a few of days.
As Duterte nears the end of his first year in office, his strong man image could suffer the longer the fighting drags on. He could be forced to seek greater support from the United States, despite his hostile attitude to Washington since taking power.
Some US special forces soldiers are providing technical support here under a long-standing arrangement, and a P3 Orion spy plane and drone aircraft have provided reconnaissance, but US troops are not directly involved in the fighting.
At least eight soldiers on the frontlines in Marawi told Reuters the militants were using accurate sniper fire, grenades, and firebombs to hold off advancing troops, despite daily bombing raids and artillery fire on their positions. Many spoke anonymously as they were not authorized to speak to media.
The battle for Marawi marks the first time Islamic State has held territory for any length of time in Southeast Asia.
Nearby countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, both of which have Muslim majorities, are fearful that it could herald the birth of a regional Islamic caliphate as the militant movement suffers reverses in Iraq and Syria.
Lt. Col. Jo-Ar Herrera, a military spokesman, said on Thursday that the Army had retaken higher ground to the east of this city, reducing the enemy’s field of fire.
Three bridges over the Agus had earlier been vulnerable to sniper fire, according to a military source, but Herrera said the Army now had control of the bridges.
Many of the militants are locals, from the Marawi region. Military officials say they have been joined by battle-hardened Islamic State fighters from as far away as Yemen and Morocco.