by Francis T. Wakefield
At least 19 members of the Islamic militant Maute Group have been slain as government troops, backed by helicopter gunships, continued their offensive to flush out the bandits from an abandoned town hall in Lanao del Sur, the Armed Forces of the Philippines said yesterday.
Thirteen soldiers were also wounded as a result of the clashes that started Thursday when the Maute Group bandits seized the old Butig town hall, AFP spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said.
“The wounded soldiers were evacuated to safer grounds and taken to treatment centers. Most of them were slightly wounded and their conditions are not life threatening,” Padilla said during a press briefing at Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City.
Padilla said as of 3 p.m. Monday, troops – backed by SF-260 and OV 10 attack planes from the Philippine Air Force (PAF) – are advancing as part of efforts to flush out the rebels.
Troops used 105-mm artillery to blast the positions of the Maute group in the nearly deserted town of Butig.
Mortar bombs could be heard from the distance as an MG-520 helicopter gunship flew overhead, a reporter in the town said.
Most of the 17,000 residents of the largely Muslim town on Mindanao island fled to evacuation centers in neighboring towns or to relatives elsewhere after the Maute incursion on Saturday, said Mayor Dimnatang Pansar.
“We can’t fight the Maute with only 20 policemen,” he said, appealing for more soldiers to be assigned there.
Only a few residents stayed in their homes as armored vehicles and military snipers fanned out through the town streets, slowly advancing on the Maute group’s position.
“Operations by the AFP’s 103rd Infantry Battalion under Col. Roseller Murillo are continuing to flush out the terrorist group from Butig, Lanao del Sur,” Padilla said.
He also did not discount the possibility that casualties on the Maute Group side would further go up as clashes continue in the area.
“We can say that the number of casualties could go up as fighting between troops and the Maute Group continues. We have been receiving reports that the clashes are spread out in different areas,” Padilla said.
Padilla, in the same press briefing, said that the areas where the Maute Group members are hiding are mostly occupied by their relatives or followers.
“Most of the residents who are not followers of the group have already fled their homes and sought refuge to safer grounds,” Padilla said.
He added that the bandits tried to capture the town hall last February but were foiled by government troops.