Philippine troops raise flag as bombs fall on Islamist-held city

Thousands of Philippine soldiers, advised by US special forces, are locked in fierce combat with hundreds of insurgents who overran Marawi city last month.

A military troop reacts during a ceremony to mark Independence Day at Luneta Park in Manila, Philippines, 12 June 2017. Filipinos held events nationwide to mark the Philippines' 119th Independence Day, in remembrance of the country's declaration of freedom from Spanish rule in 1898.  EPA/MARK R. CRISTINO
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Marawi, Philippines // Philippine troops struggling to drive extremist militants from a southern city raised the national flag for Independence Day on Monday, in a tearful ceremony dedicated to the scores killed during the conflict.

Thousands of Philippine soldiers, advised by US special forces, are locked in fierce combat with hundreds of insurgents who overran Marawi city last month. The militants have been flying black flags of ISIL and have used up to 2,000 civilians as human shields.

As gunfire rang out and planes flew bombing raids to pummel districts of the largely abandoned city, a crowd of soldiers and teary-eyed officials, firemen, police and clerks gathered outside a nearby government building to raise the Philippine flag.

“This is dedicated to soldiers who offered their lives to implement our mission in Marawi city,” said Colonel Jose Maria Cuerpo, commander of an army brigade fighting in Marawi.

The annual ceremony marks the anniversary of an armed revolt against Spanish colonial rule. The Philippines actually won independence from the United States in 1946.

All military camps and government agencies will fly their flags at half-mast on Tuesday in honour of the troops killed in Marawi, said military spokesman Col Edgard Arevalo.

In the latest casualties, 13 Philippine Marines were killed on Friday in ferocious street-to-street battles.

Fighting in the city has left a total of 58 soldiers and police and more than 20 civilians dead, the military said, estimating that almost 200 militants have been killed.

The last time the Philippine security forces sustained large numbers of deaths was in 2015, when 44 police commandos were killed in a botched attempt to capture a Malaysian Islamist militant in the same region.

Tens of thousands have fled Marawi, which is the largely Catholic country’s most important Muslim city, since the military says its troops unexpectedly interrupted plans by the fighters to take over Marawi in a spectacular event to show that ISIL had arrived in the Philippines.

President Rodrigo Duterte has said the militant attack was part of a wider plot by ISIL to establish a base in the southern region of Mindanao, and has declared martial law there to quell the threat.

But the military has struggled to defeat the heavily-armed gunmen, who have used hostages and pre-existing bomb-proof tunnels to entrench their positions.

“As you know, the target was to liberate Marawi today, June 12, but... you can see how complex the problem is and how many new developments there are,” foreign secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said at the annual flag-raising ceremony in a Manila park.

On Sunday the region’s military chief, Lieutenant-General Carlito Galvez, said the fight would be “most difficult, deadly, bloody, and it will take days and months to clear up”.

Defence secretary Delfin Lorenzana said a captured militant had told the military the ISIL chief, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi had directly “incited” the gunmen to attack the city of 200,000.

As the conflict intensifies, the US embassy in Manila said on Saturday American forces were providing assistance to the Filipino troops, although it declined to give details for security reasons.

*Agence France-Presse