Islamist militants control about 20 percent of Marawi City in the Philippines, a top general said on Tuesday, refuting a claim by Islamic State that its fighters were still “spread in more than two-thirds” of the town after three weeks of fighting.
Last week a military spokesman said the militants, who tried to seize and seal off Marawi on May 23, had been beaten back into less than 10 percent of the Muslim-majority town on the island of Mindanao.
IS’s news agency, Amaq, said that the Philippines military had “completely failed” in a first effort to regain the city, at least 200 of its troops had died and many had fled their positions amid fierce fighting.
“Islamic State fighters are spread in more than two-thirds of Marawi and tighten the chokehold on the Philippine army that is incapable of maintaining control of the situation,” it said.
Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla branded the Amaq report “pure propaganda.”
“Should we take their word that they control two-thirds of Marawi? With 202 confirmed terrorists killed why should we even give them the chance of airing their lies?” he said.
Asked to comment on how much of the lakeside town was still occupied, Lieutenant General Carlito Galvez, head of military command in Western Mindanao, told Reuters it was 20 percent.
“Out of 96 barangays [neighborhoods], they are holding portions in Marinaut, Lulut, Mapandi and Bongolo Commercial District, which only comprise 20 percent of the whole Marawi city … and its getting smaller everyday,” he said.
Almost the entire population of about 200,000 fled from Marawi after the militants stormed it, but the military believes that beyond the checkpoints now fencing off its main roads there are still some 500-600 civilians trapped or being held hostage.
Padilla said that, as of Tuesday, the number of security forces and civilians who had died in the battle for Marawi stood at 58 and 26, respectively.
The seizure of Marawi by fighters allied to IS, including some from the Middle East, has alarmed Southeast Asian nations which fear the ultra-radical group — on a backfoot in Iraq and Syria — is trying to set up a stronghold on Mindanao that could threaten their region.