MARAWI, Philippines – The Philippine government learned days in advance of a plan by militants aligned with the Islamic State group to lay siege to a southern city and staged an army raid on a militant hideout that prevented a bigger and deadlier attack, officials said Tuesday.
Solicitor General Jose Calida said in a report that the government received intelligence information at least five days before the militants prematurely launched their bloody assault on Marawi city on May 23 after government forces raided the hideout of militant leaders led by Isnilon Hapilon.
Army troops failed to capture Hapilon in the raid, which sparked a gunbattle in a Marawi village, but military officials said the assault forced the gunmen to prematurely start their attack aimed at occupying the Islamic city of more than 200,000 people. The rebel plan was to launch the attack on May 26 or 27, the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in the country's south.
"Specifically, on 18 May 2017, intelligence reports revealed that the ISIS-inspired local rebel groups were planning to occupy Marawi city, and to raise the ISIS flag at the provincial capitol," Calida said in a report to the Supreme Court, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.
"The said attack would have served as the precursor for other rebel groups to stage their own uprisings across Mindanao in a bid to simultaneously establish a wilayah in the region," Calida said, referring to the southern Philippine region and the Islamic State province the militants aimed to create there.
Calida defended President Rodrigo Duterte's decision to declare martial law in the entire southern Mindanao region to deal with the Marawi crisis. Opponents have questioned the grounds cited by Duterte for the martial law declaration and asked the Supreme Court to invalidate his action.
Asked why the government failed to stop the Marawi siege despite its advance knowledge of the plot, presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said the intelligence information was still being vetted, but the military nevertheless planned a raid on the hideout of Hapilon and other militants behind the plot.
"From our point of view, we were able to stop something that could have been much, much bigger," Abella told a news conference.
Abella was also asked why top security officials led by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. joined Duterte in a trip to Russia around the time the government received information about the planned Marawi attack. "They were all on top of the situation. They were actually monitoring everything," Abella said.
When the military managed to verify some of the details of the plot, it staged the raid on Hapilon's hideout, military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said. He acknowledged, however, that the military was unaware of the number of armed fighters the plotters could muster.
In his report, Calida said "about 500 rebels marched along the main streets of Marawi and swiftly occupied strategic positions throughout the city" on May 23, adding that the gunmen had "strong combat capability, and seemingly limitless firepower and other resources."
Army Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez, a regional military commander, said 150 to 200 gunmen have been isolated in four of Marawi's 96 villages, and dozens of militant snipers have been killed, setting back the militants' lethal firepower three weeks after the bloody siege began.
With the remaining gunmen contained in just a few villages, Padilla said "the worst is over" in Marawi, but added that it was difficult to say when the government could regain full control of the devastated city.
Perched on buildings, some connected by tunnels that gave them mobility, the snipers have made it difficult for troops to wrest back areas under the rebels' control. The gunmen have also used civilian hostages as human shields, Galvez said.
Philippine officials say 191 militants, 58 soldiers and policemen and 26 civilians have been killed in the three weeks of clashes.