MARAWI: The Philippine military declared an eight-hour ceasefire on Sunday in its offensive against militants occupying parts of the war-torn city of Marawi, to allow residents to celebrate the end of Ramazan.
Military chief General Eduardo Ano said his forces would implement a “humanitarian pause” during the Eid al-Fitr holiday in Marawi, the most important Muslim city in the mainly Catholic Philippines.
“We declare a lull in our current operations in the city on that day as a manifestation of our high respect to the Islamic faith,” Ano said in a statement.
Hundreds of militants, flying the Islamic State group flag and backed by foreign fighters, seized swathes of Marawi in the southern region of Mindanao last month, sparking a bloody street battle.
Government troops have launched a relentless air and ground offensive in a bid to crush the militants but have failed to dislodge gunmen from entrenched positions in pockets of the city.
Much of the lakeside city is now in ruins while most of its 200,000 residents have fled to evacuation centres or to the homes of relatives and friends in other towns.
In Iligan just north of Marawi, evacuees from the conflict dressed in colourful flowing robes marked the end of Ramadan by holding prayers on the grounds of the city hall.
Armed commandos from the police Special Action force stood guard as the prayers were held.
Ano said the ceasefire will last from 6am, when Eid prayers start, until 2pm when festivities are expected to culminate.
But he warned the truce would be “lifted immediately” if the security of troops or civilians is jeopardised by renewed firing from the militants.
Military spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla said around 500 civilians remained trapped in areas where the fighting is concentrated.
Fourteen people, mostly elderly, were rescued on Friday, he said.
After the ceasefire ends “we will continue to try to enter the areas occupied by them and liberate Marawi,” Padilla said on radio station DZBB.
Nearly 300 militants and 67 government troops have been killed in the fighting, according to official figures.
Marawi’s mayor Majul Usman Gandamra said volunteers are trying to take advantage of the lull to “rescue” some of the trapped civilians.
“This (Eid) is memorable because we are celebrating it away from our homes,” he said.
“We are hoping that this problem will soon be over… I urge everybody to continue praying so that the turmoil in our city of Marawi will end,” the mayor said on ANC television.
In May Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law across all of Mindanao to quell what he said was a rebellion aimed at establishing an Islamic State province in the area.
Foreign fighters, including those from Chechnya, Indonesia and Malaysia, are among those killed in the Marawi conflict.
A senior military commander said on Saturday that Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the Marawi attack and one of America’s most wanted terrorists, may have slipped out of the city.
Australia has sent two high-tech surveillance planes to help Filipino troops in Marawi, joining the United States which has also provided military assistance.