by Nonoy Lacson, Genalyn Kabiling, and Francis Wakefield
Eleven soldiers were killed and seven others were wounded when a Philippine Air Force (PAF) SF260W aircraft conducting air strikes to flush out Maute Group terrorists now holed up in Marawi City hit ground troops instead shortly before noon Wednesday.
In the wake of the botched aerial assault, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the military is now considering suspending or limiting air strikes.
A Board of Inquiry (BOI) was already created to investigate the incident upon the orders of Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Gen. Eduardo Año.
“One of our SF260W aircraft conducting airstrikes that day was successfully hitting its assigned target in its earlier sorties. However, it was unfortunate that the last ordnance round it delivered went wayward for an unknown reason and accidentally hit and caused the lives of our ground forces,” said Lt. Gen. Carlito G. Galvez Jr., Armed Forces of the Philippines-Western Mindanao Command (AFP-WesMinCom) commander.
Despite this setback, Galvez assured that the military will be unrelenting in the pursuit of our mission. The drive and the resolve of every AFP personnel in the air, ground, and water remain undiminished.”
But Año said the military will defer the use of SF260 Marchetti light trainer/attack aircraft pending the result of the BOI investigation.
PAF currently has in its arsenal at least 30 SF260 Marchetti aircraft manufactured by Alenia Aermacchi of Italy.
“Pending the result of the investigation, we may defer the use of SF260 for the meantime but we will continue using all other available ground air and naval assets in order to resolve this crisis quickly,” Año said during an interview.
100 MILITANTS STILL IN MARAWI
So far, Lorenzana estimated that around 50 to 100 militants remained holed up in the city.
Galvez assured that while the AFP leadership commits and takes the initiative to conduct a thorough investigation on the circumstances surrounding this unwanted development, the AFP will remain focused on its mission.
He said the AFP mourns the loss of our valued men. We will attend to their bereaved families and provide comfort and solace to them during this trying time.
He emphasized that while every soldier, airman, sailor, and marine understands that the intricacies of warfare against these extremists entail high degree of risk, we shall take necessary actions to prevent such incident from happening again.
Since the conflict started, at least 120 Maute terrorists, 36 soldiers (including the 11 killed by friendly fire), two policemen, and 19 civilians have been killed.
To break the heavy resistance of the Maute Group and restore normalcy in Marawi, it is necessary to use combat support arms, Galvez said. Hence, we employed armor, artillery, and airpower capabilities in support to our infantry units to breach the fortified walls, decks, and underground of buildings constructed to be virtual fortresses of the Maute Group, he said.
The military, he said, will incessantly push our way forward to retake the remaining part of Marawi and liberate the people who have been used as human shield.
8 FOREIGN TERRORISTS KILLED
On Thursday, Lorenzana said at least eight foreign terror suspects were among those killed in the ongoing government operations aimed at restoring peace and order in Marawi City.
Lorenzana, appearing in a Palace press conference, confirmed that the Islamic State-linked suspects come from five countries, including Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and Chechnya.
“There were eight foreign fighters that were killed… two Malaysians, two Indonesians, two Saudi nationals, one Yemeni, one from Chechen. They are ISIS members,” Lorenzana said.
“There could be more. There could be more that we killed that we have not identified,” he said.
Lorenzana said the ISIS militants must have entered the country through the backdoor “maybe coming from Indonesia or from Malaysia.” He noted that some Marawi residents they received reports the people saw “a lot of foreign-looking fighters” in the area.
Director General Ronald dela Rosa, Philippine National Police (PNP) chief, said he had already instructed local police commanders in Mindanao, especially near Marawi City, to ensure that nobody could sneak into the city.
“We are on the lookout, we are intensely guarding the borders so that no foreigners would be able to reinforce them,” said Dela Rosa.
Around 500 extremists, including those from Maute gang, Abu Sayyaf, and other local armed groups, were involved in the siege of Marawi City, according to Lorenzana.
He said the armed groups had a “big plan to take over” Marawi City, slowly infiltrating the area with her weapons and other equipment since January.
“The area is very porous, it’s very big. Maybe, we failed to put more troops there because we were also operating in some areas like in Eastern Mindanao and Basilan and Sulu and other areas that are also flaring up,” he said.
Lorenzana said the armed groups also received foreign funds “to distribute around and buy loyalties.”
Citing intelligence report, he said Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, the subject of a manhunt of troops, got “several million dollars worth of funds from the Middle East.” “He has a lot of money to distribute and buy loyalties,” he said in explaining how Hapilon was able to bring around 100 armed men from Basilan to Lanao del Sur.
MARTIAL LAW DURATION
Meanwhile, President Duterte said Thursday he will be the first in line to ask for martial law in Mindanao to be lifted once he is assured that peace is restored.
In his speech during the mass oathtaking of newly appointed officials and national leagues, Duterte addressed the criticism against his declaration of martial law in Mindanao.
“The earlier we attain the equanimity of the community, the stability, I would be the first to clamor for the lifting of martial law,” Duterte assured.
Duterte placed Mindanao under martial law and suspended the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in the entire island for 60 days due to the armed conflict in Marawi City, Lanao del Sur which resulted to numerous casualties. (With reports from Aaron B. Recuenco and Argyll B. Geducos)