At least 11 soldiers have been killed after Philippines Air Force plane bombed in a southern city targeting at Muslim militants who are holding hostages as human shields, the authorities said on Thursday.
The "friendly fire" as they call it brings the death toll to 171 the number of people reported killed since gunmen waving black flags of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group began rampaging through the Muslim city of Marawi last week.
This comes after Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte warned the people in the besieged southern region of the country that he will be harsh in enforcing the martial law there in the wake of a Muslim extremist siege on the city.
He had imposed martial law in the region for 60 days in an attempt to crush Muslim extremists who have aligned themselves with the Islamic State (ISIS) group. The extremists occupied a hospital, jail and other buildings in Marawi City. But the government's narrative of being in "full control" of Marawi took a hit on Thursday when defence chiefs said 11 soldiers were killed in a misguided bombing mission.
"It's very painful. It's very sad to be hitting our own troops," Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told AFP in Manila. "It's sad but sometimes it happens in the fog of war."
Initially, he said 10 soldiers died but later national military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla later confirmed that 11 soldiers were killed. Lorenzana also warned that many militants may have escaped, despite checkpoints throughout the city and surrounding it. "We have reports they are going to some of the towns around Marawi city," Lorenzana said.
According to him, there were about 500 militants at the start of the unrest and only between 50 and 100 were believed to still be in Marawi. The military said 120 gunmen have been killed, meaning as many as 330 remain unaccounted for and could have slipped out of the city.
Amid the concerns about the rising threat of ISIS, Lorenzana said militants from Saudi Arabia, Chechnya, Yemen, Malaysia and Indonesia were among the dead.
The military has relentlessly dropped bombs and fired rockets at the militants, who have been hiding in residential areas of Marawi. Reports said about 2,000 people are still believed to be trapped in the area.
The gunmen are also holding hostages, some of whom have been forced to speak on propaganda videos for the militants calling for troops to withdraw. Meanwhile, the local authorities have also repeatedly warned that the trapped residents and hostages are in grave danger of being killed in the air assaults, and on Thursday repeated calls for them to end.
"We continuously appeal to the chain of command... to refrain from using airstrikes," Zia Alonto Adiong, a local politician and spokesman for the provincial crisis management committee said.
On Wednesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross called for a humanitarian ceasefire.
Lorenzana said airstrikes may be curtailed because of the friendly fire incident, but military spokesman Padilla insisted the soldiers' deaths would not weaken the resolve of the armed forces.
"We will be unrelenting in the pursuit of our mission. The drive, resolve of every AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) personnel in the air, ground and water remain undiminished," Padilla told AFP. "We will incessantly push our way forward to retake the remaining part of Marawi and liberate the people that the terrorists continue to use as human shields."