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Filipino Muslim leaders call for end to airstrikes

Fighting kills at least 61 gunmen, security forces urged to assist thousands of civilians flee southern city of Marawi

Joe Torres, Manila

Joe Torres, Manila

Updated: June 15, 2017 05:58 AM GMT
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Filipino Muslim leaders call for end to airstrikes

Soldiers patrol the streets of the southern Philippine city of Marawi, May 29, as sporadic clashes continue a week after Islamic State-inspired fighters attempted to occupy the city on May 23 (Photo by Mark Navales)

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Muslim religious leaders in the Philippines appealed to President Rodrigo Duterte to stop military airstrikes against Islamic militants in the southern city of Marawi.

"We implore [the government] to cease the airstrikes immediately and to employ land attacks with the help of local military and police," read a statement issued by the National Ulama Conference of the Philippines.

The group also called on security forces to assist civilians fleeing the city and take them to evacuation centers.

Close to 100,000 people have been displaced by the running gun battle between government troops and gunmen claiming to have links with the so-called Islamic State.

The number represents nearly half of the 201,785 total population of the city.

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A military official said the airstrikes are only being conducted on known positions of the gunmen.

"We are using precision ammunition in our surgical airstrikes," said military spokesman Col. Edgard Arevalo.

"This means that we have well-identified targets and we have highly skilled and trained pilots delivering the payload to our targets," he added.

Arevalo said military commanders on the ground "know the real situation and when their troops are in danger and in need of air support."

He said the airstrikes were meant to "destroy" enemy positions that are preventing security forces from advancing and clearing the remaining "pockets of resistance."


Call for assistance

The Muslim clerics also called on various government and private groups to respond to the humanitarian needs of the displaced people, most of whom belong to the Maranao ethnic group.

"Show us what you’ve been saying that ... you are sincere in correcting the historical injustices committed against the Moros," read the Muslim clerics' statement.

In a separate statement, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which waged a four-decade war in Mindanao, urged the Philippine government to ensure that ceasefire mechanisms continue to work on the ground.

"Mobilizing the military in Mindanao should still respect the mechanisms that have proved to be effective in scaling down armed encounters between government forces and the [rebel fighters]," said the group.

It noted that "recent events have shown that disregard for [ceasefire] mechanisms have been disastrous to our communities and to the efforts to end the decades-long conflict in our homeland."

A ceasefire agreement has been in effect between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front since a peace deal was signed in 2014.


Clearing operations

The military is hoping to completely clear the city in the coming days "depending on the situation on the ground."

"As days go by, there are intervening factors that we may not factor in so it's really hard to give any assurance," said Arevalo.

The military said at least 61 gunmen have already been killed in the fighting, although only 42 bodies were retrieved.

On the government side, 18 soldiers and policemen had died while 64 others were wounded. Authorities said 19 civilians were slain by the terrorists.

Sporadic clashes continued to erupt as the conflict entered its seventh day on May 30.

Lieutenant General Eduardo Ano, chief of staff of the Philippine armed forces, said government soldiers have the upper hand.

"We are in total control of the whole area but it’s not cleared yet due to the urban terrain," said the general.

"We have to clear one step at a time, house to house, block by block," he said.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the situation is expected to return to normal before the end of the 60-day martial law declared by Duterte last week.


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