Hundreds still trapped in Marawi as crisis enters 3rd week

MARAWI CITY, Philippines (UPDATED) – Many residents have grown impatient and wary as clashes between government forces and terrorists approach the 3rd week and civilians remain trapped in the combat zone.

There are 1,500 to 1,700 residents trapped in remote villages here, according to the local crisis management committee.

A resident crashed a press conference at the capitol here on Monday, June 5, to appeal for the rescue of his wife trapped inside Banggolo, the business district that has turned into a war zone.

He got an audience with a 3-star general, but wasn't pacified and later found himself wailing in front of television cameras by the flagpole where the local terrorists planned but failed to raise the black flag of the Islamic State (ISIS).

He asked for war to end, saying Muslims, Christians, and even reporters have had enough.

Even Presidential Peace Adviser Jesus Dureza was visibly under pressure, snapping at a reporter during Monday's press conference here.

"Mukhang 'di 'nyo tina-trust ang military natin. Bakit negative ang approach sa military? They are here to protect the civilians. Bakit ganoon ang tonada ng tanong?" Dureza said.

(It looks like you don't trust the military. Why do you have a negative approach to the military? They are here to protect civilians. Why is your tone like that?)

Lieutenant General Carlito Galvez, commander of the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom), was almost in tears. In the thick of combat, he said soldiers are dying and have no time to loot. 

"The ISIS-inspired group already looted everything. Bukas na lahat ng mga iyon (All those houses were ransacked). Ang mga sundalo namin (Our soldiers), before they operated, we told them already that those who will loot will be discharged. I ordered the battalion commander responsible for that," he said. 

A day earlier, an air strike hit a border town. Provincial Crisis Management Committee spokesperson and regional assemblyman Zia Alonto Adiong raised alarm and demanded an explanation over what happened in his hometown.

Galvez said the military will investigate. Rumored fatalities turned out to be false.

Peace corridor

Calls to end military air strikes continued as authorities scrambled for information on the fate of hostages, including Father Teresito "Chito" Soganub. Galvez said he believes the priest is still alive.

"Only 134 were rescued yesterday (Sunday), which shows many more are still stranded in Marinaut, Lilod, and various impassable areas of the city," said Samira Gutoc-Tomawis, the former member of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission who resigned over President Rodrigo Duterte's recent rape joke before soldiers.

A "peace corridor" allowed members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the dominant Muslim rebel group that is talking peace with the government, to enter the combat zone and rescue trapped hostages.

DISPLACED. While most Marawi City residents have fled, many are still trapped inside the combat zone. File photo by Bobby Lagsa/Rappler

DISPLACED. While most Marawi City residents have fled, many are still trapped inside the combat zone.

File photo by Bobby Lagsa/Rappler

Malacañang clarified that a total of 179 were rescued, not 134, correcting numbers reported the previous day.

But the initial target was to rescue about 500, according to Adiong. Bangsamoro implementing panel chair Irene Santiago said they are reviewing tactics to make the rescue plan more effective.

It's a tough balancing act, said Dureza. The military is hesitant to impose temporary ceasefires to allow rescuers to go because it allows the terrorists to reposition.

But Galvez said their priority is the safety of trapped civilians and hostages.

3rd week

The Marawi clashes erupted on May 23 following a military raid that attempted to arrest Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, who was said to have brought his forces to the Lanao area late last year to link up with the Maute Group. (READ: How a military raid triggered Marawi attacks

The clashes prompted Duterte to declare martial law in the entire Mindanao, but this has done little to immediately address the conflict in the city.

In areas already declared "cleared of Maute presence," residents want to return. But the military said it's still not safe.

Looting is also a big cause of concern, but Galvez blamed professional looters. "Kukuha talaga 'yan. Naka-van pa," he said.  

Vehicles packed with luggage have attempted to enter the city, but are turned away at checkpoints.

Barangay defense system

After a meeting with Dureza, Marawi City Mayor Majul Usman Gandamra announced coordination with the military is underway to allow barangays to boost the presence of security forces in already cleared areas.

"Yesterday, we had a meeting with our barangay officials over the concerns of constituents, especially about securing their properties and house. Nagkaroon po tayo ng (We had) coordination with the military and now we are processing an organization composed of barangay officials," the mayor said.

"Sila po ang magiging countepart ng ating Armed Forces sa pag-secure ng kanilang respective barangays," he added. (They will be the counterpart of our Armed Forces in securing their respective barangays.)

Galvez called it the "barangay defense system," essentially tapping private armed groups to become force multipliers. He assigned the 1st Infantry Battalion to do this. 

It serves two purposes. The volunteers will guard properties from looters while helping make sure terrorists do not penetrate the military's dragnet.

The provincial capitol, previously empty and quiet, is back in business as more and more local officials show up to assert their power over the military that has practically taken over governance in the city the past two weeks. –