MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) - The general leading an offensive against pro-Islamic State militants holed up in a southern Philippine town has been relieved of his command, an army spokesman said on Friday, the 11th day of the country’s biggest security crisis in years.
The removal of Brigadier-General Nixon Fortes as commander of the army brigade in Marawi City and his replacement by his deputy, Colonel Generoso Ponio, was not related to the battle that has raged in the city, the spokesman said.
“That’s not the reason,” spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ray Tiongson said when asked if Fortes’ replacement was triggered by the course of the conflict.
Fortes was appointed commander of the army’s 103rd Brigade in January and oversaw a series of operations on the island of Mindanao to disrupt the Maute, a group that has sworn allegiance to Islamic State which later laid siege to Marawi City.
A military source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Fortes was dismissed because not all his forces were in the city when the rebels began their rampage, even though military intelligence had indicated that Islamist militants, including foreign fighters, were amassing there.
The source said that some of Fortes’ forces were busy fighting a small band of communist insurgents in a nearby town when some 400 militants overran Marawi City on May 23 after a botched military raid to capture their leader, Isnilon Hapilon.
Thirty-nine members of the security forces have been killed in the Marawi City battles, as well as 19 civilians and 120 rebel fighters.
In fighting on Friday, Philippine planes dropped bombs and helicopters delivered rockets on militant positions.
Several buildings were set alight as the military tried to flush out about 100 fighters to meet a deadline set by Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to re-take the city of 200,000 people by the end of the day.
“I don’t think we can meet the deadline to completely free Marawi of every single armed element on every street,” military spokesman Restituto Padilla told reporters. “We’re working and doing our best to accomplish this mission.”
Padilla said operations were slow because militants had taken civilians as hostages, using women and children as human shields in fortified commercial buildings in the city centre.
On Friday, two OV-10 close-air support aircraft resumed bomb runs, circling the city then diving steeply before dropping their ordnance.
Smaller SF 260 planes accidentally dropped a payload on ground troops, killing 10 and wounding seven, on Wednesday. The incident was an accident of the sort that sometimes happens in the “fog of war”, the military said.
While civilians are endangered by the air strikes, the military believes they are essential to a quick victory, with at least 2,000 people trapped by the fighting and fast running out of food and water.
Militant snipers on top of buildings have complicated the use of ground troops and forced the military to rely on air power, Lieutenant Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera, the military’s spokesman in Marawi, said on Thursday.
“A sniper on a building can pin down all the troops, so one way to neutralise that is to use precision air strikes,” he said.
Resident Alan Ampaso said 50 houses in his neighbourhood burned down after being hit by a rocket fired by a helicopter on Friday.
“We just ran and I can’t find my wife, my son, my daughter,” he said, distraught and weeping. “I have lost every single thing. I have no money, no home, no family. Please help me.”
On Friday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) raised the problem of decomposing bodies with the provincial government, noting only 19 bodies of the dead had been recovered since the conflict began.
“There are a lot of dogs hunting around town. They are starving. They are eating the bodies,” Roberto Petronio, head of the ICRC’s Mindanao sub-delegation told Reuters. “We warned the authorities that there is a risk of an outbreak of rabies.”
In another part of insurgency-plagued Mindanao, President Rodrigo Duterte told soldiers he had received a letter from a negotiator for a Maoist-led guerrilla group offering “fight alongside with us against terrorism”.
“Maybe, they realised if the ISIS will prevail in Mindanao or even part of Mindanao, they will be not part of any new government,” he said, referring to Islamic State.
Last week, Dutere appealed to Muslim separatists and the Maoists to join the government fight against the Islamic State-linked militants.
Communist rebel leaders issued a statement on Thursday, urging the government to return to a fifth round of negotiations in the Netherlands, saying they also opposed militants who did not respect human rights.
Additional reporting by Manuel Mogato in MANILA; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Robert Birsel