MARAWI CITY, Philippines // American special forces have joined the battle to crush extremist militants in a southern Philippines town, as government forces struggled to make headway and 13 marines were killed in intense urban fighting.
The Philippines military said the United States was providing technical assistance to end the siege of Marawi City by fighters allied to ISIL, but it had no boots on the ground. The siege is now in its third week,
“They are not fighting. They are just providing technical support,” military spokesman Lt Col Jo-Ar Herrera said.
The US embassy confirmed it had offered support, at the request of the Philippines government, but gave no details.
A US P3 Orion surveillance plane was seen flying over the town on Friday. The cooperation between the longtime allies is significant because Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, who came to power a year ago, has taken a hostile stance towards Washington and has vowed to eject US military trainers and advisers from his country.
The seizure of Marawi City on May 23 has alarmed South-East Asian nations, who fear that ISIL, facing setbacks in Syria and Iraq, is establishing a stronghold on the Philippine island of Mindanao that could threaten the whole region.
About 40 foreigners have fought alongside the Philippine militants in Marawi, most of them from Indonesia and Malaysia, though some came from the Middle East.
The Philippines military suffered its biggest one-day loss on Friday when 13 marines conducting clearing operations died after an “intense” house-to-house firefight during which they encountered improvised explosive devices and were attacked by rocket-propelled grenades.
The deaths took the number of security forces killed in Marawi to 58. At least 20 civilians and more than 100 rebel fighters have also been killed in the fighting.
At least 200 militants remain in a corner of the town. An estimated 500 to 1,000 civilians are trapped there, some being held as human shields, while others are hiding in their homes with no access to running water, electricity or food.
The military said it was making headway in the town but was proceeding carefully so as not to destroy mosques where some of the militants had taken up positions.
“We give premium to the mosques, because this is very symbolic to our Muslim brothers,” Lt Col Herrera said.
The Philippines is predominantly Christian, but Mindanao has a significant population of Muslims and Marawi City is overwhelmingly Muslim.
One of the main extremist factions dug in around the heart of the city is the Maute group, a relative newcomer amid the throng of insurgents, separatists and bandits on Mindanao.
Lt Col Herrera said the military was “validating” reports that the two Maute brothers who founded the group had been killed.
“We are still awaiting confirmation,” he said. “We are still validating those reports but there are strong indications.”
Maute joined forces with Isnilon Hapilon, who was last year proclaimed by ISIL as its South-east Asia “emir”. Military officials believe Hapilon is still in the town.
The military has said it is aiming to end the siege by Monday, June 12, which the Philippines’ independence day.