|Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP)|
MANILA, Philippines - Sprawled on the boarded-up balcony of a two-story house, the barrel of his rifle poked into a hole cut in the wood, an Army sniper calls for quiet before taking his shot.
“Firing,” he says evenly, before the .50 caliber shot rings out, sending tremors through the house. He was firing at a home less than a kilometer away, believed to be a stronghold of Islamist Maute group of militants who have been holed up in Marawi City for over five weeks.
A spotter sat next to him, with his scope set into another hole. The two spoke quietly to each other as the sniper took three more shots across the Agus River into the militant-held commercial district of Marawi, now a battleground strewn with debris from ruined buildings.
Scores of bodies are rotting in the area, and the stench mixes with the smell of gunpowder.
Thousands of soldiers are battling to retake Marawi, where gunmen of the Maute group loyal to Islamic State (IS) launched a lightning strike on May 23.
Southern Philippines has been marred for decades by insurgency and banditry. But the intensity of the battle in Marawi and the presence of foreign fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia, Yemen and Chechnya fighting alongside local militants had raised concerns that the region may be becoming a Southeast Asian hub for IS as it loses ground in Iraq and Syria.
As troops poured in to contain the siege, few were expecting a slow, difficult and unfamiliar urban war.
“We are used to insurgencies... but a deployment of this magnitude, this kind of conflict is a challenge for our troops,” said Lt Col Christopher Tampus, one of the officers commanding ground operations in Marawi.
He said progress in clearing the city has been hindered by militant fire and booby traps like gas tanks rigged with grenades.
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