Teary-eyed, hundreds search through rubble in devastated Philippines city

A man stands in front of his ruined house after residents were allowed to return to their homes for the first time since the battle between government troops and Islamic State militants began in May last year, in the Islamic city of Marawi, southern Philippines April 19, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

By Karen Lema

MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – Surrounded by the ruins of homes they fled nearly a year ago, many residents of war-torn Marawi City in the Philippines were in tears when they briefly returned this week and sifted through rubble to salvage any possessions they could find.

The Muslim-majority city of 200,000 was over-run by militants loyal to Islamic State last May, who fought the military for five months before they were ousted. After almost daily aerial bombardments and artillery fire, large parts of the picturesque, lakeside city have been devastated.

Residents wait in queue at a military checkpoint before they were allowed to return to their homes for the first time since the battle between government troops and Islamic State militants began in May last year, in the Islamic city of Marawi, southern Philippines April 19, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Residents wait in queue at a military checkpoint before they were allowed to return to their homes for the first time since the battle between government troops and Islamic State militants began in May last year, in the Islamic city of Marawi, southern Philippines April 19, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Hundreds of residents who had fled to refugee camps or to relatives’ homes in nearby towns were briefly allowed back by authorities to the ruins of the central business district on Thursday.

Calim Ali, 50, stepped out of her vehicle to find a ruined, empty plot where her home had stood in the bustling heart of the city. The only possession she could recover was a charred weighing scale that she said her family used in their fruit and rice business.

“I brought empty sacks. I thought we would still find something, like pots, and our money box,” Ali said, while her husband searched through the thick vegetation growing in the rubble.

Ali’s family is among about 27,000 others that lived in the main battle area, straddling over 24 barangays, or municipal districts. The area has remained off limits until this month, when the military said it had cleared it of hazards like booby traps and unexploded ordnance.

No civilian was permitted to stay in the area after 3 p.m. on Thursday, and the rule will remain in place on other days when visits are permitted, officials said.

There are 20 other barangays in the city which were not affected, and 50 others which were spared heavy shelling. Families have moved back to these areas.

There seems no chance of any early return for the residents of the city center.

Most buildings are in ruins and there is no food, electricity or any sewage facilities. Authorities say the area will take years to rebuild.

Meanwhile, posters showing residents how to recognize live mortar shells, grenades, aircraft rockets and improvised explosive devices were put up on every street, to remind the people to be careful as they sifted through the ruins.

Soldiers manning the area on Thursday ordered a group of residents scouring debris to quickly leave one of the streets after they found an unexploded bomb, which they detonated.

A woman reads a document at a military checkpoint before residents were allowed to return to their homes for the first time since the battle between government troops and Islamic State militants began in May last year, in the Islamic city of Marawi, southern Philippines April 19, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

A woman reads a document at a military checkpoint before residents were allowed to return to their homes for the first time since the battle between government troops and Islamic State militants began in May last year, in the Islamic city of Marawi, southern Philippines April 19, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro


“I’m at a loss for words,” Aisah Riga, 54, told Reuters, wiping away tears as she and her family rummaged through debris to find anything of use from what used to be their glass and aluminum supply store.

“This is our only source of livelihood and now it’s gone. I don’t know how we will survive. I have nine children”, she said.

Sobaidah Moner, 43, was waiting for the military to let the long line of vehicles into the main battle area as she recounted the day she and her family hurriedly left the city a day after fighting broke out on May 23.

“We were not able to bring anything except for the clothes we were wearing that day. All the clothes we are wearing right now were given to us by relatives,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion.

Like Moner, several residents who spoke to Reuters said they abandoned their belongings and only brought clothes for a few days when they sought safety in nearby towns, thinking that the gunbattle, which was not uncommon in Marawi, would soon be over.

“I thought the fighting would be over in three days. We didn’t expect this. It hurts so much”, Moner said.

Residents said they are pinning their hopes on the government’s promise to rehabilitate and rebuild the city. But the extent of damage, estimated at 11 billion pesos ($211 million) means it would take years of work to reconstruct Marawi.

“The most affected area has its own development plan which is expected to be finished by 2021,” said Felix Castro, housing assistant secretary, and field office manager of an inter-agency government task force named “Bangon Marawi (Rise Marawi)”.

A Chinese-led consortium, also called Bangon Marawi, has been chosen for the reconstruction, but other bidders would be asked to compete and it will be allowed to match the best proposal, Castro said.

Rehabilitation work is scheduled to start in June, he said.

For now however, the once-bustling center of the city is lifeless.

“Before you could hear the sound of cars, and anything you wanted to buy was available. But now that we are here, there’s only silence,” said Jalil Solaiman, a 39-year-old resident.

(Reporting by Karen Lema; Additional reporting by Erik De Castro; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Exclusive: Looted cash, gold helps Islamic State recruit in Philippines

A view of the facade, of the battered Landbank building, looted by militants, in the early days of the Marawi siege, Philippines January 13, 2018.

By Tom Allard

MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – Islamist insurgents looted cash, gold and jewelry worth tens of millions of dollars when they occupied a southern Philippines town last year, treasure one of their leaders has used to recruit around 250 fighters for fresh attacks.

The military said Humam Abdul Najib escaped from Marawi City, which the militants had hoped to establish as a stronghold for Islamic State in Southeast Asia, before it was recaptured by the military in October after five months of ferocious battles and aerial bombardment.

Since then, Najib, also known as Abu Dar, has used the booty looted from bank vaults, shops and homes in Marawi to win over boys and young men in the impoverished southern province of Lanao del Sur, military officers in the area said. Hardened mercenaries are also joining, lured by the promise of money.

As a result, Islamic State followers remain a potent threat in Southeast Asia even though hundreds of militants were killed in the battle for Marawi, the officers said.

“Definitely they haven’t abandoned their intent to create a caliphate in Southeast Asia,” Colonel Romeo Brawner, the deputy commander of Joint Task Force Marawi, told Reuters.

“That’s the overall objective, but in the meantime while they are still trying to recover and build up again – fighters and weapons – our estimate is they are going to launch terrorist attacks.”

On Saturday, militants wounded eight soldiers in two attacks in Lanao del Sur, Brawner said, the first such violence since the recapture of Marawi.

In the early days of the occupation of Marawi last May, as black-clad fighters burned churches, released prisoners and cut the power supply, other militants targeted banks and the homes of wealthy citizens, commandeering hostages to help with the plunder.

“It was in the first week. They divided us into three groups with seven people each,” said J.R. Montesa, a Christian construction worker who was captured by the militants.

Using explosives, the militants blew open the vaults of the city’s three main banks, Landbank, the Philippine National Bank and the Al Amanah Islamic Bank, Montesa told Reuters in a town near Marawi. They trucked away the booty, easily slipping out of Marawi because a security cordon was not fully in place.

They also raided jewellery stores, pawnshops and businesses.

Landbank and Al Amanah did not respond to requests for comment. Philippine National said recovering losses because of the Marawi fighting was a concern, but did not give details.

The Islamic celebration of Ramadan was looming at the time the militants struck and banks, businesses and homes had more money than usual, said Marawi City police chief Ebra Moxsir. The Maranaos, the ethnic group that dominates the area around Marawi, are mostly Muslims.

“There was a lot of money inside the battle area,” he told Reuters. “Maranaos keep millions of pesos in safety vaults in their homes. Gold, also. It is a tradition of the Maranao to give gifts of money (during Ramadan).”

Montesa said vans they loaded with the spoils of the raids were “overflowing”, with money, gold and other valuables stuffed into every crevice of the vehicles.

“They were saying it was a gift from Allah. They would say ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is greatest) while we were stealing.”


The military and police have also been accused by rights groups and by Marawi residents of looting during the conflict.

Brawner said a small number of soldiers had been disciplined for looting but the practice was not widespread.

However, the centre of Marawi – home to its major banks, main market and grandest residences – was under the control of militants for months.

Brawner said authorities were unclear exactly how much was taken by the militants.

“It’s hard for us to say. We have heard about 2 billion pesos ($39.4 million) but that’s just an estimate.”

“In the first days, when we were not able to establish that security cordon around the main battle area, that was the time when they were able to slip out with their war booty.”

The government also said the regrouping of militants in Mindanao, the southern region of the Philippines that has been marred by Islamic and Communist uprisings for decades, was dangerous.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque told Reuters: “There is always the danger of these groups regaining strength enough to mount another Marawi-like operation.”

Najib is believed to have fled Marawi early in the battle. There are conflicting reports about whether he had a dispute with other leaders or left as part of a preconceived plan.

He attempted to return in August with 50-100 more fighters to reinforce the militants, who by then were losing ground, but he was prevented by an improved security cordon, said Brawner.

“According to reports, they were able to recruit another 100 to 150. So the estimate is 250 all in all, and this includes children,” Brawner said. “They are trying to recruit orphans, relatives of the fighters who died and sympathisers.”

Parents of children are offered as much as 70,000 pesos ($1,380) plus a monthly salary of as much as 30,000 pesos ($590) to hand over their sons to the group, according to security sources and community leaders briefed on the recruitment.

The average family income in the Philippines is 22,000 pesos per month, according to a 2015 government survey. It was about half that in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, where Marawi and surrounding areas lie.

Brawner said local residents had told the military that the militant group was also offering bonuses of up to 10,000 pesos ($200) for killing a soldier.

Rommel Banlaoi, a Manila-based security expert, said more experienced fighters had also been recruited. These were “mercenaries” attracted by the payouts, he said, but Najib has also tapped into disaffection among Maranao angered by the destruction of large parts of Marawi by the Philippine military’s bombing campaign.

“That kind of narrative is being used by ISIS to lure people to continue the fight,” Banlaoi said, using an acronym for Islamic State.


With the looted funds and a loyal following, Najib, could become the new “emir” of Islamic State in Southeast Asia following the death of Isnilon Hapilon in the battle for Marawi, security analysts say.

Najib is a hardened fighter and cleric who studied in the Middle East and reportedly trained with militants in Afghanistan, they say.

He co-founded Khalifa Islamiyah Mindanao, an insurgent group formed in about 2012 that launched a series of bombings in Mindanao.

“He is a very, very important person because he has been there from the start,” said Banlaoi.

Najib had links to Al Qaeda, which earned him the nickname “al Zarqawi of the Philippines”, a reference to the slain leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), Abu Musab al Zarqawi. AQI morphed into Islamic State, to which Najib pledged allegiance in 2014.

According to Banlaoi, Najib worked closely with Mahmud Ahmad, a Malaysian militant believed to have died in Marawi who was the key conduit between the Philippines fighters and the Islamic State leadership in Syria and Iraq.

Banlaoi said the recruitment effort by the pro-Islamic State remnants led by Najib was “massive and systematic”.

“If you are well funded, you can do a lot of things.”

(Additional reporting by Martin Petty, Neil Jerome Morales and Manuel Mogato; Editing by John Chalmers and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Amnesty urges independent probe into atrocities, bombings in battle for Philippines Marawi city

Amnesty urges independent probe into atrocities, bombings in battle for Philippines Marawi city

MANILA (Reuters) – The war in the Philippine city of Marawi saw Islamist insurgents execute civilians or use them as human shields, while military air strikes killed non-combatants and may have been used in excess, an Amnesty International report said on Friday.

The investigation by the rights group on the bloody five-month battle was based on interviews with 48 witnesses from September until early November and called for an independent inquiry.

The conflict in Marawi, the only predominantly Muslim city in the mainly Catholic Philippines, was the country’s biggest and longest battle since World War Two. More than 1,100 people, mostly insurgents, were killed, including 166 soldiers and 47 civilians, according to the authorities.

At least 350,000 people were displaced and large parts of Marawi have been decimated by air strikes.

Witnesses described at least 10 separate incidents where at least 25 people were executed by the Muslim extremists because they were Christians. Amnesty described those as war crimes.

It also said 10 hostages may have been killed in a single bombing run by the armed forces, and said an independent inquiry should include an assessment as to whether the air strikes were proportionate to the threat.

“They must initiate a prompt, effective and impartial investigation into whether its bombings of civilian neighborhoods was proportional under international humanitarian law,” Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s crisis response director, said in a statement.

“The Philippine authorities must bring those responsible for torture and other violations to justice and ensure that the victims receive adequate reparations.”

Major-General Restituto Padilla, armed forces spokesman, said the military was aware of the report and would respond in full later. He said troops were given strict instructions to observe and respect international humanitarian law and human rights.

“We will not tolerate and condone these abuses and will act on them,” he told a regular news briefing on Friday.

The 34-page report, “The Battle of Marawi: Death and destruction in the Philippines”, quotes a survivor who said he was spared by rebels because he could recite the “shahada”, a statement of Islamic faith, but a Christian ambulance driver was shot dead because he could not do the same.

Other survivors said hostages were executed or physically abused, forced into labor and used as human shields.

Some hostages who escaped alleged they were detained and tortured by security forces who suspected them to be militants. Amnesty said it talked to eight men, including seven Christians, who said they were badly treated by the authorities.

“I was punched and kicked. They tied our hands and feet with electrical wire,” the report quoted one survivor as saying. “The military was angry because 13 of their men were killed.”

Last month, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis praised the Philippine military for ending the war without a single credible human rights abuse allegation.

Amnesty noted that the military was responding to concerns about looting by soldiers but “must follow through on promises of compensation”.

(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Martin Petty and Michael Perry)

Philippines’ Duterte lauds China’s help at ‘crucial moment’ in Marawi battle

Philippines' Duterte lauds China's help at 'crucial moment' in Marawi battle

By Karen Lema and Martin Petty

MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday heaped praise on visiting Chinese Premier Li Keqiang for what he said was China’s “critical” role in expediting the end of a five-month war with Islamist insurgents in a Philippine town.

Duterte credited China with supplying what he said was the rifle that on Oct. 16 killed Islamic State’s regional point man, Isnilon Hapilon, and said he would present that weapon to China as a mark of appreciation for its help in the war in Marawi City.

“I am going to return to you the rifle so that the Chinese people would know, it was critical, it is a symbol of the critical help,” Duterte told Li, the first Chinese premier to visit the Philippines in a decade.

There are doubts, however, about if it really was a Chinese sniper rifle that killed Hapilon, and uncertainty about whether the military has used any of the 6,100 guns Beijing has donated since June.

The Philippine defense minister recently said all those weapons were given to the police.

Hapilon was killed by members of the 8th Scout Ranger Company. “Scout Ranger Books”, a Facebook page of one of the ranger officers, gave a blow-by-blow account of the operation and said the shot that killed Hapilon came from a gun mounted on an armored vehicle.

Members of the unit also told media the shot came from a fixed weapon controlled remotely. Such weapons are typically 50-calibre machine guns.

“The arms you gave us, helped abbreviate, shorten the military fight there,” Duterte said.

On Friday, he said something similar to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He told him Russia had “helped us turn the tide and to shorten the war” by supplying weapons that Philippine soldiers used to kill militant snipers in Marawi.

The Russian arms were actually delivered two days after military operations were declared over.

The conflict was the biggest and longest battle in the Philippines since World War Two. More than 1,000 people, most of them rebel gunmen, were killed and 353,000 were displaced.

Duterte told Li China’s help came at “the crucial moment when we needed most and there was nobody to help us at that time”.

His remarks may not sit well with the United States and Australia, which from the early stages of the conflict were providing technical support to Philippine forces, including surveillance aircraft to pinpoint locations of militants.

Li said China would provide 150 million yuan ($22.7 million) to help with reconstruction in Marawi. He praised Duterte for last year putting aside festering disputes with China and visiting Beijing, a trip he said was an “ice-breaker”.

Philippine security analyst Renato De Castro said the information Duterte gave to Li was inaccurate, but consistent with his policy of “total appeasement” of China.

“I’m really surprised, I don’t know whether it’s flattery or an outright lie,” he told news channel ANC.

(Editing by Robert Birsel)

We’ll buy arms from Russia, Philippines’ Duterte tells Putin

We'll buy arms from Russia, Philippines' Duterte tells Putin

DANANG, Vietnam (Reuters) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte thanked Moscow on Friday for its “timely assistance” in defeating pro-Islamic State militants who took over a southern city for months, expressing his willingness to buy Russian weapons.

Duterte last month declared the liberation of Marawi City from Islamist militants after 154 days of fighting, which killed more than 1,100 people, including 165 soldiers, and displaced nearly 400,000 residents.

“I want to build a strong armed forces and a strong police and the reason is very important for you to know that we are eyeing – we are buying arms from Russia this time,” Duterte told Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam.

The Philippines was to buy more than 20,000 assault rifles from the United States, but some senators, concerned with Duterte’s human rights record and rising killings, blocked that sale.

But China and Russia, whose relations with the Philippines have vastly improved in recent months, donated a total of 11,000 assault rifles and trucks.

“Your timely assistance to my country helped us replenish the old arms and the spent bores that were fired repeatedly and we have a new stock,” he said, in transcripts sent to Manila by the presidential communications office.

Manila and Moscow signed a military deal on logistics, including a contract with a state-owned company for the supply of equipment, during the first-ever visit by a Russian defense minister to the Philippines last month.

The Philippines will have a 125 billion pesos ($2.44 billion) fund to modernize the military from 2018 to 2022 through a multi-year congressional allocation to upgrade its hardware, a senior military official told Reuters.

“We are looking at helicopters, small arms and equipment for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, but we are still discussing the specifics,” said the same military official who declined to be named because he was not authorized to talk to the press.

“We still prefer U.S. and Western equipment but they are very expensive. If the Russians and Chinese equipment can be comparable in quality, then they can be excellent alternatives.”

(Writing by Manuel Mogato in Manila; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Copies of Koran, boots and scarves all that remain in Philippine rebel leader’s lair

Copies of Koran, boots and scarves all that remain in Philippine rebel leader's lair

By Martin Petty

MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – Prayer mats, chequered scarves, black fatigues, and bullet-ridden walls mark the hideout where the “emir” of Islamic State in Southeast Asia spent months preparing the most brazen and devastating militant attack in the region.

A four-storey house in a quiet alley of Marawi City in the southern Philippines was the secret lair of Isnilon Hapilon until late May. After a botched military raid to apprehend him, a thousand-strong rebel alliance held large parts of the city for five months.

Hapilon’s death in a military operation elsewhere in Marawi on Oct. 16 was the catalyst for the end of Philippines’ longest and most intense urban battle in recent history. [L4N1MY257]

Security forces moved in on the house on May 23, trying to capture the country’s most wanted man, but came under sustained attack from rebels firing rocket-propelled grenades.

A bomb-battered structure, shattered windows and wall-to-wall holes from machine gun fire tell the story of the ferocious three-day battle that erupted at Hapilon’s hideout, and prompted the call to hundreds of fighters to expedite the planned takeover of Marawi.

Hapilon escaped through a large hole that was blasted out of a rear wall, making his way across a rice field to a mosque next to the vast Lake Lanao. From there, he joined the guerrillas who held the heart of the city for the next five months.

Community volunteers on Thursday showed Reuters the house in the now empty, narrow street where the military believes Hapilon had lain low for several months. All other properties were intact and neighbors had fled long ago.

“At the time, no one knew who these people were, people saw them about but there was no reason to suspect anything,” said Mohammed Seddick Raki, who lived nearby.

Other volunteers said women and children stayed at the rented house and visitors were frequent.

Children’s’ shoes were scattered amid the debris and a woman’s robe was hanging from a window.


Inside the house, black shirts, pants and plaid scarves synonymous with Islamic State were strewn across rooms littered with broken floor tiles and chunks of rock from blasted walls.

Left behind were waterproof boots, a balaclava, medical supplies and camouflage bags and waistcoats typically used by soldiers to carry rifle magazines.

Coated in a think layer of dust on floors of every room were pocket-sized copies of the Koran, some with pages stained by water leaked through gaping holes in the roof.

The deputy task force commander in Marawi, Colonel Romeo Brawner, said Hapilon evaded security forces because rebels had a network of lookouts and gunmen ready to defend him.

“They put up heavy resistance, they were spread across a large area. They were strategically placed,” he said. “They were prepared for it.”

Hapilon’s escape in the last week of May led to anarchy in the city of about 200,000. Rebels took hostages, set fire to buildings, ransacked churches, broke into the local jail to free inmates and looted an armory.

The government had insufficient security forces in Marawi to prevent the fighters from fanning out across the city and seizing hundreds of buildings.

Hapilon was wanted by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and had a bounty on his head of up to $5 million. He was killed by army rangers in a night operation and his body was retrieved from the battle zone in the heart of the city and his identity confirmed by the FBI’s DNA analysis.

In five months of intense urban battle, the heart of Marawi was all but destroyed by government air strikes and shelling that leveled commercial areas and crushed thousands of shops, homes and vehicles.

“No one could have known what would happen,” said Mohamed Faisal Mama, a resident in the same Basak Malutlot district where Hapilon was hiding.

“No one knew them. They weren’t famous then.”

(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

In abandoned Philippine city, first hints of a return to normalcy

A worker cleans-up displayed antiques for sale inside a store in Marawi city, southern Philippines October 26, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – After five months of crippling conflict, there are slow signs of life returning in the Philippines’ battered Marawi City.

Utilities engineers were at work on Thursday in the near-deserted outskirts of Marawi which escaped the daily air strikes that flattened vast swathes of the city.

A few groceries, motorcycle repair shops and gasoline sellers have opened, ready for the first batch of returning residents in the coming days.

Nearly 6,500 families will be headed back to the homes that were left intact, out of the 353,000 people displaced when hundreds of pro-Islamic State gunmen ran amok and seized control of central Marawi in May.

Combat operations ended on Monday, when the last fighters were killed in a fierce final stand. With vehicles crushed and overturned and buildings reduced to skeletons of mangled steel and rubble, the city appears to be in the aftermath of a war that lasted years, rather than months.

Amelah Ampaso said she decided that day to sneak back to Marawi and reopen her shop, now stocked with cooking oil and cigarettes and offering photocopying services, printing, and haircuts.

As a first-mover in a liberated Marawi, the 25-year-old is doing brisk business among the few people around.

“The other shops are closed, so people are coming here,” she said. “It’s safe again.”

But nearby streets look like the set of a post-apocalyptic film, silent, with shutters pulled down and weeds growing between concrete slabs. Rust and decay is setting in after months of heavy rains and neglect.

Spray painted on the walls of almost every building is the word “clear”, marking where police and soldiers went house-to-house checking thousands of abandoned properties for booby-traps or signs of insurgents hiding.

The fighting has taken a heavy toll, killing more than 1,100 people, mostly militants, and reducing a large part of the interior of the city to piles of rubble, leaving only shells of uninhabitable gray buildings.

Shop owner Madid Noor, 64, returned two months into the battle, reassured by detachments of soldiers and police nearby, and unperturbed by what were constant explosions and the howling of fighter jets over the city.

After a few lean months, he hopes returnees will come to him to buy washing powder, petrol and fake branded sportswear.

“Some days we have customers. But not every day,” he said.

(Reporting by Martin Petty; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Troops and strays, the only signs of life in ruined Marawi

Troops and strays, the only signs of life in ruined Marawi

By Martin Petty

MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – With vehicles crushed and overturned and buildings reduced to skeletons of mangled steel and rubble, the Philippine city of Marawi resembles the aftermath of a war that lasted years, rather than months.

Except for small clusters of troops dotted amid the ruins and skinny cats and dogs scavenging for food, the heart of Marawi is a ghost town, all but destroyed by the Philippines’ biggest and fiercest urban battle in recent history.

Hundreds of rebels claiming allegiance to Islamic State seized large areas of the city of 200,000 people in May and clung on through unrelenting government air strikes and artillery bombardments, right until the last remaining gunmen were killed three days ago.

The military escorted media on Wednesday through the ravaged streets of the once picturesque lakeside town, showing for the first time the front lines of a devastating conflict that has stoked fears of Islamic State’s extremist agenda taking root in the region.

The scale of the damage was stark as a convoy of vans carrying reporters and cameramen followed an army truck through one district after another, stopping off at key intersections recently cleared of unexploded munitions and booby traps.

Wide boulevards in the city were lined by crumbling homes and shop fronts missing higher floors, with fragments of chairs, children’s toys and household appliances wedged into piles of crumbled concrete.

Tattered pieces of clothing poking above banks of rubble provided the only color in the mass of gutted grey buildings blackened by smoke. Vans, pickup trucks and cars were turned over, coated in rust or torn apart by bomb blasts.

The militants’ planning, stockpiling of weapons and their combat capability stunned government forces, who had to fight street by street to take back the city and were often pinned down by snipers and homemade bombs.

“At first our forces cannot press them, they moved from one building to the next. Our concept was to restrict them – it took time, but we constricted them,” said Lieutenant Colonel Sam Yunque, a special forces commander deployed in Marawi since the beginning of the conflict.

“We innovated to suppress their techniques. They were not better than us, that’s why they lost.”


The Philippines announced the end of combat operations in Marawi City on Monday after troops killed 42 remaining militants, including some foreign fighters. More than 1,100 people, including 165 troops and 45 civilians, died in the conflict. The government has said the rest were militants.

Senior officers said they took pains to protect the multitude of mosques in what is the only designated Islamic City in the mainly Catholic Philippines. Although many escaped the pounding of daily air strikes, domes and walls were peppered with holes from heavy machine gun fire as troops sought to flush out rebels hiding within.

Earlier on Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis praised Filipino soldiers for defeating the militants without attracting allegations of human rights violations.

The United States provided critical tactical intelligence in the Marawi combat operation, deploying surveillance planes and drones, thermal imaging and eavesdropping equipment.

The walls were blasted away at Marawi’s police headquarters where the armory was looted, and in the adjacent jail where more than 100 prisoners were freed.

Close by, a mosque minaret had fallen into a mash of metal and rock. Behind it was a lone, leafless tree with only a few branches left.

The militants smashed through thick layers of concrete to turn drainage channels into trenches, doubling as tunnels for fighters to move between buildings and elude surveillance drones and army snipers.

Rebel-held buildings were covered with graffiti, including one of an arrow through a heart, with the message “I love ISIS”, an acronym for Islamic State.

But there was no love for the rebel alliance among the hundreds of jubilant soldiers at send-off ceremonies held this week as troops gradually return home.

Colonel Corleto Vinluan, the commander of joint special operations, described the enemy as “rats”.

He said the military had gained valuable experience in urban combat and chose a strategy that took time, but ultimately paid off.

“We couldn’t just enter the area, it was very big, we did not know where the leaders were, we had to surround them and the area became smaller. It was that time when we really took control,” Vinluan told Reuters.

“We didn’t expect they’ll last that long, their ammunition their firearms and their food. We learned a lot from this event, we adjusted our strategies.

“They were tough fighters, some of them, but not all.”

(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Families returning to ruined Philippine city taught to identify bombs

Families returning to ruined Philippine city taught to identify bombs

MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – Philippine teachers on Tuesday gave families returning to the destroyed lakeside city of Marawi a course on how to identify unexploded bombs in their homes and warned them to stay clear.

The five-month battle to retake Marawi from pro-Islamic State rebels left the city in ruins. The government announced the end of military operations on Monday in the country’s biggest security crisis in years, allowing rebuilding and rehabilitation efforts to begin..

The teachers taught children and their parents how to recognize live mortar shells, grenades, aircraft rockets and “improvised explosive devices” in their villages.

Security forces used artillery bombardment and air strikes to flush out the gunmen who endured 154 days of the offensive by stockpiling huge amounts of weapons, including bombs.

Warnings from the teachers included drawings of inquisitive children hammering bombs and trying to set them on fire.

“This helps us parents to understand and tell our children not to touch or get near the bombs,” said Sobaida Sidic, a housewife attending the training.

Authorities said 920 militants, 165 troops and police and at least 45 civilians were killed in the conflict, which displaced more than 300,000 people.

Lominog Manoga, a principal at a school in Marawi overseeing the training, said it was important to teach people the risks.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had declared Marawi City liberated last week, even though fighting was not actually over. On Sunday, he said it was important to be vigilant because no country could escape Islamic State’s “clutches of evil”.

(Reporting by Roli Ng; Writing by Karen Lema; Editing by Nick Macfie)

North Korea threat is ‘critical, imminent,’ Japan tells U.S., South Korea

People watch a television broadcasting a news report on North Korea firing a missile that flew over Japan's northern Hokkaido far out into the Pacific Ocean, in Seoul, South Korea, September 15, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Phil Stewart

CLARK FREEPORT ZONE, Philippines (Reuters) – The threat from North Korea has grown to a “critical and imminent level” and the United States, Japan and South Korea must address the matter, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told his U.S. and South Korean counterparts in talks on Monday.

Onodera’s remarks underscored the deep concern in Tokyo after North Korean weapons tests, including test firing missiles over Japan, as Pyongyang seeks to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the United States.

His comments broke from more measured language on Monday by U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-Moo, as the three men met on the sidelines of a gathering of Asian defense chiefs in the Philippines.

“(The) threat posed by North Korea has grown to the unprecedented, critical and imminent level. Therefore, we have to take calibrated and different responses to meet with that level of threat,” he said, speaking through a translator, at the start of talks in the Philippines.

South Korea’s Song also acknowledged that “North Korea’s provocative behavior is becoming worse and worse,” in public remarks before reporters were escorted out of the meeting room.

Mattis renewed sharp criticism of North Korea’s tests, saying they “threaten regional and global security.”

Mattis, who kicked off a week-long trip to the region on Monday, has been eager to emphasize diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis peacefully as escalating tension between Washington and Pyongyang stoked fears of ‘armed confrontation.’

Asked about his conversation with Onodera after the two met earlier in the day, before joining South Korea’s Song, Mattis said they discussed “maintaining stability and peace in support of the diplomats.”

Meanwhile, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said he is willing to travel to North Korea on behalf of the Trump administration to help diffuse the situation, the New York Times reported.

Mattis has been more cautious in his public remarks than U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been locked in a war of words with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, threatening to destroy North Korea if necessary to defend the United States and its allies.

Kim has blasted Trump as “mentally deranged.”



Mattis is at the start of a week-long trip to Asia and will attend meetings hosted by defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the Philippines.

ASEAN defense ministers, in a joint statement, expressed “grave concern” over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and urged the reclusive country to meet its international obligations and resume communications.

They underscored the “need to maintain peace and stability in the region” and called “for the exercise of self-restraint and the resumption of dialogue to de-escalate tensions in the Korean peninsula.”

Mattis’ trip, which will include a stop in Thailand, comes before Trump’s first visit to Asia next month, including a stop in China.

Trump has been pressuring China to do more to rein in North Korea’s missile and nuclear program. China is North Korea’s neighbor and biggest trading partner.

Mattis, while in the Philippines, said he will commend the military for defeating insurgents in Marawi City on the islandof Mindanao.

The Philippines said on Monday it has ended five months of military operations in Marawi after a fierce and unfamiliar urban war that marked the country’s biggest security crisis in years.

Some experts see the Marawi insurgency as a prelude to a more ambitious bid by Islamic State loyalists to exploit Mindanao’s poverty and use its jungles and mountains as a base to train, recruit and launch attacks in the region.

“It was a tough fight,” Mattis told reporters on his flight to the Philippines, adding he thought the Philippines’ military had sent “a very necessary message to the terrorists.”

On Thursday, Mattis will lead the U.S. delegation inThailand for the cremation rites for the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.


(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Manuel Mogato in Manila; Editing by Peter Cooney and Jeffrey Benkoe)