Until Friday, the commander of Philippine forces in the battle to retake the southern city of Marawi from Islamic State militants was Brigadier General Nixon Fortes. He was abruptly relieved of his command and replaced by his deputy on Friday, without immediate explanation.
Reuters reports that a military spokesman specifically denied Fortes was removed due to his performance in the Marawi battle, which has now been raging for 11 days. He became commander of the 103rd Philippine Army Brigade in January, executing a number of operations against the Islamic State’s vassal groups in the Philippines.
However, an anonymous military source told Reuters that Marawi was Fortes’s downfall, specifically because “not all his forces were in the city when the rebels began their rampage, even though military intelligence had indicated that Islamist militants, including foreign fighters, were amassing there.”
According to this account, Fortes was called on the carpet because some of his troops were sent to fight communist insurgents, who plague the island of Mindanao along with ISIS and other Islamist militants and separatists.
The battle for Marawi has dragged on much longer than expected, with mounting collateral damage and a tragic friendly fire bombing of Philippine troops. The military was forced to admit on Friday that it probably would not meet a deadline set by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to bring Marawi fully under control by the end of the day. This could have increased the pressure against Fortes for allowing the city to be overrun in the first place.
“Based on the report that we’re getting I don’t think we can meet that deadline today to completely, I’d like to qualify that, to completely free Marawi of every single armed element in every street,” said military spokesman Restituto Padilla. “Until such time that every member of this armed group, this rebellious group that still wants to make a stand inside Marawi exists, we cannot totally say we have cleared Marawi.”
Padilla was somewhat vague about how much “clearing” of Marawi remains to be done. He conceded that the enemy “continues to occupy commercial buildings as their defensible enemy lairs” and was still putting up fierce resistance to government troops, including “sniper fire.” He added that the use of civilian hostages, including women and children, by the insurgents was slowing down the operation to recapture the city.
Reuters quotes the International Committee of the Red Cross warning about health issues in the battle-torn city, including diseases spread by unrecovered decomposing dead bodies, which are being eaten by packs of starving dogs. The Red Cross said only 19 bodies have been recovered out of an estimated 175 militants, soldiers, and civilians killed.
The Philippine SunStar reports that the former mayor of Marawi City, Sultan Fahad Salic, is denying allegations that he provided support to the ISIS-allied Maute terror group when it attacked the city, insisting that some of his own family members are currently trapped in the city.