(UPDATED) -- Two soldiers and one policeman were reported killed, while 12 others were injured, during a firefight between government forces and members of the Maute terror group on Tuesday afternoon, May 23, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.
Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesperson Brigadier General Restituto Padilla said that the ongoing clash in Marawi City, Lanao Del Sur is aimed at neutralizing Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, who was spotted along with an estimated 15 followers in the area.
"The military operation focus on the alleged presence of Isnilon Hapilon with the 15 fully armed Maute group who occupied an apartment as their rendezvous in Marawi City," Philippine Army 1st Infantry Tank Division spokesperson Colonel Jo-ar Herera said.
Hapilon is reportedly the representative of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) terror group in the Philippines.
Lorenzana also confirmed that Maute bandits began occupying some establishments in the city like Amai Pakpak Medical Center, the City Hall, and the city jail.
He also verified that the church, city jail, Ninoy Aquino School and Dansalan College have been set on fire by the group.
“As of tonight (Tuesday, May 23), the Maute group burned several facilities – the church, city jail, the Ninoy Aquino School and the Dansalan College. The Maute fighters still occupy also the main street of Marawi city called the Quezon Street and two bridges,” Lorenzana said.
Senior Superintendent Oscar Nantes, Lanao del Sur police provincial director, said the fighting erupted when the Maute group opened fire on personnel from the military’s 103rd Brigade.
"When the firefight ensued, there were reported re-enforcement from the symphatizers of Maute where pocket firefight erupted in nearby areas," Hererra said.
Police said the fighting erupted around 3 p.m. in the villages of Caloocan and Basak Malutlut, near the Lanao del Sur police provincial command and Mindanao State University.
The fighting reportedly sent thousands of residents fleeing while others were locked inside their homes. It happened about two days before the start of the fasting month of Ramadhan.
Chief Superintendent Reuben Sindac, Philippine National Police-Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (Armm) regional director based, said all police units across Lanao del Sur have been placed on heightened alert against the possible spillover of the fighting.
Armored personnel carriers backed the ground troops in fighting the Maute Group members, Nantes said.
As of 4 p.m., Tuesday, two Air Force planes dropped several bombs in selected areas of Marawi City, particularly in the border with Lanao del Sur beside Lake Lanao.
Gunshots could still be heard in the heart of Marawi City, according to Zia Alonto Adiong, an Armm lawmaker and a resident of Marawi City. He appealed for residents to stay home.
In the nearby City of Iligan, the police said all entry and exit points in the city are now locked down. Full alert status are being raised.
The clashes erupted while Muslims are preparing to start the fasting month, which is expected to begin this Friday with the possible sighting of the moon on Thursday night, May 25.
On November 28, 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte revealed the link between the Maute group to Isis after the encounter between the military and the Maute group in Lanao del Sur.
The clash occurred on November 26, 2016 in Butig town, Lanao del Sur where the Maute group occupied and raised the black flag of the Isis at the abandoned municipal hall of the town.
At least 20 soldiers were wounded and some 35 Maute group members were killed in the clash. (SunStar Philippines/PNA/With Ruth Abbey Gita/And Richel V. Umel/Divina Morgia Suson/SunStar Cagayan de Oro)