Filipino protesters clash with police near the US Embassy as the country marks its Independence Day in Manila on June 12, 2017. Peace advocates and human rights activists used the holiday attend marches to condemn the government’s policies on issues like the martial law and US military intervention in Mindanao. / AFP PHOTO / Joseph Agcaoili
Embattled Philippine troops struggling to drive Islamist militants from a southern city raised the national flag for Independence Day on Monday, in a tearful ceremony dedicated to the scores killed during the conflict.
Thousands of Philippine soldiers, advised by US special forces, are locked in fierce combat with hundreds of insurgents who overran Marawi city on May 23, flying black flags of the Islamic State (IS) group and using up to 2,000 civilians as human shields.
As gunfire rang out and planes flew bombing raids to pummel districts of the largely abandoned city, a crowd of soldiers and teary-eyed officials, firemen, police and clerks gathered outside a nearby government building to raise the Philippine flag.
“This is dedicated to soldiers who offered their lives to implement our mission in Marawi city,” said Colonel Jose Maria Cuerpo, commander of an army brigade fighting in Marawi.
The annual ceremony marks the anniversary of an armed revolt against Spanish colonial rule. The Philippines actually won independence from the United States in 1946.
All military camps and government agencies will fly their flags at half-mast on Tuesday in honour of the troops killed in Marawi, said military spokesman Colonel Edgard Arevalo.
In the latest casualties, 13 Philippine Marines were killed on Friday in ferocious street-to-street battles.
Fighting in the city has left a total of 58 soldiers and police and more than 20 civilians dead, the military said, estimating that almost 200 militants have been killed.
The last time the Philippine security forces sustained large numbers of deaths was in 2015, when 44 police commandos were killed in a botched attempt to capture a Malaysian Islamist militant in the same region.
Tens of thousands have fled Marawi, which is the largely Catholic country’s most important Muslim city, since the military says its troops unexpectedly interrupted plans by the fighters to take over Marawi in a spectacular event to show that IS had arrived in the Philippines.
President Rodrigo Duterte has said the militant attack was part of a wider plot by IS to establish a base in the southern region of Mindanao, and has declared martial law there to quell the threat.
But the military has struggled to defeat the heavily-armed gunmen, who have used hostages and pre-existing bomb-proof tunnels to entrench their positions.
“As you know, the target was to liberate Marawi today, June 12, but… you can see how complex the problem is and how many new developments there are,” Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano told reporters at the annual flag-raising ceremony in a Manila park.
On Sunday the region’s military chief, Lieutenant-General Carlito Galvez, told a news conference the fight would be “most difficult, deadly, bloody, and it will take days and months to clear up”.
Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said a captured militant had told the military the IS chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had directly “incited” the gunmen to attack the city of 200,000.
As the conflict intensifies, the US embassy in Manila said on Saturday American forces were providing assistance to the Filipino troops, although it declined to give details for security reasons.
The two countries are bound by a 1951 mutual defence treaty, though Duterte has tried to steer the Philippines away from US influence since he became president last year.
Duterte skipped the Independence Day flag-raising in Manila on Monday as he was “extremely tired” after visiting wounded soldiers from Marawi the previous day, his spokesman said.