ILIGAN, PHILIPPINES: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte apologised Tuesday for a military offensive that has left the nation’s main Muslim city in ruins, but said it was needed to crush militants linked to the Islamic State group.
Duterte also vowed that US-backed air strikes on Marawi would continue, as the conflict entered its fifth week with no sign of an end and its reported death toll climbed towards 370.
“I am very, very, very sorry that this happened to us. I hope that soon you will find it in your heart to forgive my soldiers and government and even me,” Duterte said in a speech at an evacuation centre near Marawi for people who have fled the fighting.
The fighting has seen Marawi, considered the Muslim capital of the largely Catholic Philippines, turn from a bustling trading centre into one resembling war-torn cities in Iraq or Syria.
It began when hundreds of militants waving black Islamic State flags rampaged through Marawi on May 23, torching buildings and taking Christian hostages.
Duterte immediately imposed martial law across the entire southern region of Mindanao, home to 20 million people, saying the assault was the start of an IS bid to establish a caliphate there.
The military deployed planes and attack helicopters to blast enemy positions, using American surveillance and intelligence assets, despite the risk to civilians and even their own soldiers.
The bombing has seen entire districts destroyed but the gunmen have remained holed up in pockets of Marawi, sheltering in bomb-proof basements and moving through tunnels, according to the military.
Hundreds of civilians are still believed to be trapped in the militant-controlled areas, according to local authorities and aid workers.
Duterte said his ground troops would lose the battle if they fought without the air support.
“The military said if we don’t use them (bombs), we would be dragged even deeper into this. We will be finished off,” he said.
“If we won’t use them, our soldiers will all be killed.”
A few hours before Duterte spoke, Philippine OV-10 Bronco planes were seen making diving attacks on Marawi, followed by deafening explosions.
Sixty-two soldiers have died in the conflict, including 10 killed in a “friendly fire” bombing, according to authorities.
They have reported three policemen and 26 civilians also dying in the conflict, with 19 residents dying of disease in displacement camps.