Scores of fighters and two soldiers killed during battle between Maute rebel group and army, military spokesman says.
On May 24, the day after armed fighters laid siege to the city of Marawi in southern Philippines, a military spokesman denied the presence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in the country.
“Categorically we are saying, we do not have ISIS in the Philippines,” declared Colonel Edgard Arevalo.
“When we call them ISIS, we are only making them famous,” Arevalo told reporters, repeating previous assertions that ISIL had nothing to do with the Maute armed group and its ally Abu Sayyaf group, who operate in the southern Mindanao province.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in the island of Mindanao on the night of the deadly siege of Marawi, a mainly Muslim city of about 200,000 people.
“Government must put an end to this. I cannot gamble with ISIS because they are everywhere and you know what is happening or you must be very aware of what is happening in the Middle East,” he told reporters in the capital, Manila, after he cut short a trip to Russia.
In Moscow, his Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana also said that the Maute fighters and ISIL are one and the same, adding that the attack was carried out with international backing.
Lorenzana later told senators that the situation in Marawi could have been contained even without martial law, contradicting the president’s statement.
But Duterte’s supporters on social media, who command millions of Filipino followers, tried to rally support for the president’s martial law order.
But in an interview with Al Jazeera’s Inside Story, Anders Corrs, an analyst who monitored attacks in the Philippines, said “there is no evidence that has come out to show” that ISIL is financially supporting the fighters in Mindanao.
“I don’t see that they are being operationally controlled by [ISIL] abroad,” Corrs said casting doubt on Duterte’s justification for martial law.
It was only the beginning of the clashing narratives that the Duterte administration offered the public.
In the same May 24 press conference, Duterte claimed a police chief in a town near Marawi was “decapitated by the terrorists” while mannng a checkpoint.
While there were civilian deaths reported at the beginning of the siege, Duterte’s statement on the beheading was proven false. The police chief was alive, according to a Washington Post report.
Whether or not the release of information about the beheading was intentional, the president fell victim to what armed forces spokesman Restituto Padilla had earlier warned against: “Disinformation”.
When the military operation was first carried out on May 23 in Marawi, the president’s press office also reported that it was targeting local Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon and up to 15 of his followers.
By June 1, Duterte said the “rebellion” is “purely ISIS”, and that it “has long been planned”. Duterte’s chief lawyer called it an “invasion by foreign terrorists”.
Since then, the numbers have also changed.
At least 120 fighters were reportedly killed, including at least two Malaysians, two Indonesians, two Saudis, a Yemeni and a Chechen, according to defence chief Lorenzana, who said between 50 to 100 fighters remained holed up.
Then on June 3, the number changed again. The government claimed up to 500 local and foreign fighters were involved in the siege, and that between 200 to 250 of them were still in hiding.
Other than the estimated 120 deaths among the fighters, the government could not clearly explain where the rest of the 500 fighters had gone. This despite the government’s assurances on May 29 that it was in “full control” of Marawi, and that it held the reins over “who comes in, and who comes out” of the city.
Still, this did not prevent Armed Forces Chief General Eduardo Ano from declaring on Saturday that the “worst is over” in the Marawi crisis, and that situation has been “contained”.
That was a day after the military’s self-imposed Friday deadline for ending the siege.
Ano had also said that the military plans to halt the implementation of martial law before its 60-day constitutional limit.
But Duterte has urged the Congress to consider extending the order beyond the two-month period if requests come from the military.
Despite Defence Minister Lorenzana’s earlier claim that the clashes will be over in a week or less, the siege, has not ended.
The death toll has now reached at least 178, including civilians and soldiers. One trapped civilian was killed by snipers on Saturday, as the military rescued 181 others. The death toll also include the 11 soldiers killed by friendly fire.
Most of Marawi’s 200,000 residents have been forced to evacuate as the two-week mark nears.