US special forces have joined the battle against Islamic State-affiliated terrorists in Marawi, the US embassy has revealed, as 13 Filipino marines were killed in clashes.
The Philippine military has been struggling to defeat hundreds of fighters, who have have controlled large parts of the southern city for more than two weeks.
A series of ferocious street-to-street gun-battles on Friday saw 13 government troops killed. The clashes were among the heaviest fighting so far, as the air force pounded the city with sustained bombing runs.
In a statement, the US Embassy in Manila said: “At the request of the government of the Philippines, US special operations forces are assisting the Philippine military with ongoing operations in Marawi.” No further details were given.
Philippine military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jo-ar Herrera confirmed the US assistance, but said the special forces were not fighting, but “providing technical support”.
Speaking of Friday’s clashes, Colonel Herrera said: ”There were intense firefights, house-to-house gun-battles.
“We are saddened with the result… we have fatalities on the government side.”
So far, 58 government troops have been killed, along with at least 20 civilians and around 138 militants. It is believed about 2,000 people are trapped, or held hostage, in the city.
Colonel Herrera said the terrorists’ tactics were making it difficult for government forces to carry out attacks without causing civilian casualties or hurting religious sensitivities.
“The local terrorist groups are using the mosque, they are entrenched there. They also used civilians as human shields… we are very precise in our operations to avoid collateral damage.”
President Duterte has said the Marawi crisis was part of a wider plot by IS to establish a new power base in Mindanao, and has declared martial law across the whole island.
There had been talk that the communist New People’s Army and the Moro National Liberation Front fighters would join government troops to tackle the crisis.
However, on Friday the president announced this would not be happening. “It’s not because I do not trust them but it simply does not fit into the picture,” he said.
The announcement of US help comes despite the president’s policy of loosening ties with his country’s old colonial master and pivot towards China and Russia.
In its statement yesterday, he embassy said Washington would “continue to work with the Philippines to address shared threats to the peace and security of our countries, including on counterterrorism issues.”