MANILA (UPDATE) - As the nation marks Independence Day on June 12, the military hopes to liberate conflict-stricken Marawi City.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is bent on raising the Philippine flag around the southern city on Monday as it vowed to end the weeks-long rampage by extremists linked with the Islamic State.
Government had earlier said the terrorist Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups, allegedly aided by foreign jihadists, were planning to establish an Islamic State wilayat (province) in Mindanao.
In a press briefing Friday, AFP spokesperson Restituto Padilla said the the military was hoping to raise the flag in key areas around the city to mark its liberation from the militants.
This even while there was no guarantee that state forces could arrest all terrorists holed up in the city by that time, including terror leaders Isnilon Hapilon and brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute.
“The Chief of Staff [General Eduardo Año] made an announcement na hoping that by Monday, we can freely wave our flags in every corner of Marawi. And we’re working feverishly to do that to ensure we are able to do, to a big extent what was announced by the Chief of Staff,” he said.
Terrorists had hoisted black ISIS flags around the city in the early days of the fighting.
Padilla said the military was now more confident that the siege would end soon because “enemy activity… seems to have dwindled and sniper fire has been very selective.”
“[Our] soldiers are doing their part, they’re doing their best and are continuing on with this effort on the ground to facilitate the liberation of Marawi hopefully by Monday,” Padilla told reporters in Malacanang.
“The end game is to have them (terror leaders) arrested, if we can arrest them. But if we cannot, then [the goal is] to neutralize them because I guess they will always fight it to the end.”
The military had earlier missed deadlines it had set to clear the city of terrorists, citing several challenges that have prevented state forces from reclaiming the once vibrant Islamic city. Among the difficulties troops faced was the presence of civilians still trapped in the area.
Asked to clarify what such liberation would mean, Padilla said: “The liberation of Marawi will only be when every armed element in the city is gone. That means to say neutralized, targeted or cleared."
Clashes between government troops and extremists began on May 23, as state forces attempted to arrest Hapilon. Local terror groups had planned attacks days earlier, as seen in a video obtained by the military.
More than 200,000 residents have fled the city, while at least 202 have died, among them 134 terrorists, 38 troops and 30 civilians.
The clashes prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to place the entire Mindanao under martial law. Congress, dominated by the President’s allies, has approved the President’s proclamation.
Padilla, however, said a Marawi liberation may not necessarily mean the lifting of martial rule in Mindanao, since the terror problem was not isolated in the city.
“Yung desisyon po sa pag-lift ng martial law ay hindi po sa amin sa ngayon. Iyang desisyon po na iyan ay kailangan pang i-assess dahil ang kabuuan po ng Mindanao ang dapat tingnan, hindi lang po ‘yung sa Marawi itself,” he said.
“May network po ito eh at they run the whole breadth of Mindanao from the southern tip, which is the Sulu archipelago up to the other areas," he added.