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Defense chief: Gov't still fighting 'strong' Maute force in Marawi

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Saturday admitted that the Maute group still has a "strong" force in Marawi City.

In a press conference, Lorenzana said government forces are still fighting with 200 to 250 members of the ISIS-inspired Maute group in the city.

"The first time that we talked about this, we only estimated about 100 to 200 people at the initial stages of the conflict. Then we revised the number to a higher number. Because if there are only 200 of them and we were able to kill already close to 200 how come they are still strong?" Lorenzana told reporters in Marawi City.

"Maybe we're looking at another 200 to 250 still holed up there... they can still put up a good fight. That's why it's giving us difficulty in clearing the areas...There are civilians trapped there, we don't want to endanger the lives of civilians," he added.

Lorenzana, meanwhile, said that they believe the Maute group is being backed by the ISIS.

"Yes, we believe that this is ISIS because normally the local groups will just scamper away and maybe hide in the mountains. Surprisingly, this group has just holed up there, and they are willing to fight it out to the last," he said.

He added during the press conference that eight foreign members of the Maute group are among those who have been killed by government forces.

In the same press briefing, Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Vice Governor Haroun Al-Rashid Lucman said they believe the Maute group is already running out of ammunition.

"They were looking for arms and bullets, that means they ran out of armor and that is a good sign because it means the rebellion has failed because they have no supplies of arms but make no mistake about it, the Muslims, the people in this country are outraged at people who want to drive a wedge between Muslim and Christians," Lucman said.

Missed deadline

Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said that the military could not free Marawi City of Maute Group by Friday as defense officials had told senators earlier this week.

"We committed that we could finish this yesterday, Friday but it turned out we could not. There are some problems along the way. First, there are people there still there that are trapped and we cannot just go there endangering their safety. Second, the defenders Maute-ISIS group occupied some mosques and you know it's very difficult to bomb these mosques," Lorenzana said.

"As of now, the central business district are surrounded by troops. Hopefully none of those fighters inside that we're trying to neutralize can get out. So our troops under the direction of General Bautista and [Lt. Gen. Carlito] Galvez are going to do this slowly," he added.

Meanwhile, Brig. Gen. Rolly Bautista, commander of 1st Infantry Division of the Philippine Army said that they will prioritize the rescue operations of the hostages.

"The primary concern of the military right now is the rescue of hostages, eventually we will see to it  that all hostages will be rescued. Then that will be our basis to really clear the area without any damage or injuries on the civilians in the area. So when we talk of the ending of this conflict, we cannot give any exact date and time but we assure you that we will finish this to the fullest," he said.

20 civilians killed

In a press statement on Saturday, the AFP's Western Mindanao Command (Wesmincom) said the number of civilians killed by Maute group members in Marawi City has rose to 20.

This, after a civilian about to be rescued by troops was shot dead by a Maute group sniper.

Thousands of civilians have also been displaced by the conflict.

The Wesmincom said that based on estimates, a total of 120 Maute group members have been killed by government forces in the city.

Of the 120 Maute members believed killed, 42 have so far been confirmed with their bodies recovered and 78 were based on eyewitness accounts.

Meanwhile, a total of 38 members of the government's forces have been killed since the Maute group launched the attack on May 23, which prompted President Rodrigo Duterte's declaration of martial law in Mindanao. —Marlly Rome C. Bondoc/ALG, GMA News