MANILA: Philippines Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana estimates that the military will need “a month or two” more to end the siege on the southern city of Marawi held by Islamist militants.
The task would be “complicated, but (Marawi) will be liberated”, he said, shortly before the Philippine military announced on Thursday that it was in its “last lap” of operations against the militants.
It was about a month ago that Mr Lorenzana had first said that the crisis in Marawi could be resolved in a week or a month.
The Philippine military has been locked in fierce battle with Islamic State-affiliated militants in Marawi for coming on three months. On May 23, hundreds of rebels took over and sealed off parts of the city, declaring the creation of an independent Islamic caliphate.
Nearly 700 people, among them 528 militants, have been killed in the conflict, according to recent armed forces figures. An estimated 360,000 residents have been displaced.
In an interview with Channel NewsAsia’s Conversation With (airing Aug 10, 8.30pm SG/HK), Mr Lorenzana gave a frank assessment of the many difficulties the Philippines military faced in the protracted fight against the militants.
The military, he said, had been caught off guard by the strength of the rebel forces – many of whom are foreigners and experts in urban fighting, he noted.
Our people were not trained in urban fighting; we have been concentrating on guerilla warfare, jungle warfare, and so this is actually a new kind of warfare for us.
Adding that the expertise of the militants is “really unbelievable,” Mr Lorenzana said that more than half of the casualties the Philippines troops incurred in the first two weeks were killed by sniper fire. This impeded the troops’ progress.
The Philippines military also faced “a failure of intelligence” after their number one intelligence officer in Marawi was killed, he pointed out.
“He had people inside working with the group, and he know where these people were going, every hour of the day,” he said. But after his death, “we were blind. It takes a lot of time actually, to develop intelligence on the enemy.”
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‘WE WERE IN DENIAL’
When asked why it took so long for the government to admit that there were IS fighters in the country, Mr Lorenzana bluntly stated: “We were in denial.”
“I think part of the reason was that the armed forces did not want to accept the fact that the southern Philippines would one day be part of this ISIS movement,” he said.
The Philippines has been fighting twin insurgencies by Maoist-led rebels and Muslim separatists in the south for nearly 50 years.
Mr Lorenzana said the biggest security concern now is the spread of extremists from the south across the rest of the country.
Because a lot of them are Filipinos, they can travel anywhere in the Philippines, and they can create mayhem or trouble anywhere - especially in in highly populated areas, like Manila and Cebu.
While the government has not received any information that the extremists are headed to these cities, Mr Lorenzana said the authorities are taking “proactive measures”.
“We have alerted our troops here in Manila, the police, we have intensified our intelligence, we are trying to monitor the movement of the terrorists in the south.
“If they come here, we have border reports. Even the shipping lanes are being monitored by our navy and our coastguards,” he added.
On Thursday, armed forces chief Eduardo Año was reported as saying that the military was poised to rescue hostages before troops launch a final push in Marawi. Around 50 to 70 hostages are believed to be held by the militants in the city.
The full interview on Conversation With airs Aug 10, 8.30pm SG/HK on Channel NewsAsia. The catch-up will thereafter be available online here