An air strike on ISIS insurgents holed up in a southern Philippine city has killed 11 government troops, Phillipine armed forces said on Thursday, in a major blow to the country's bid to end its biggest internal security crisis in years, according to Reuters.
The bombing accident occurred Wednesday when one of two planes bombing rebel positions missed its target in the heart of Marawi City, where ground troops have been battling Muslims holed-up in buildings for nine days.
The Philippine armed forces have been using a combination of ground operations by soldiers and helicopters air raids to flush out the ISIS rebels from the city, according to International Business Times.
Marawi, a Muslim-majority city of about 200,000 people, lies about 800km south of the capital, Manila.
The offensive came during what was the first combat deployment of fixed-wing aircraft in the nine-day operation, aimed at flushing out the insurgents who have defied expectations by clinging on through days of ground assaults and helicopter rocket attacks.
The city has been facing the crisis since last week after Muslims went on a deadly riot following an unsuccessful military raid to arrest Isnilon Hapilon – a Filipino Muslim on the US's list of most-wanted terror suspects with a US$5m bounty on his head.
Since then, the ISIS fighters have captured the city and held the citizens hostage. Most of the civilians have left Marawi; while over 2,000 people are still trapped, fearing for their lives amid violence by fighters and military raids.
"Sometimes in the fog of war a lot of things could happen. Accidents happen, like this," Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told a news conference.
"It's very sad to be hitting our own troops," he added. "There must be a mistake somewhere, either someone directing from the ground, or the pilot."
The Maute group has proved a fierce enemy to a military enjoying superior firepower and greater troop strength.
The government is concerned that the group's brazen attack and its resilience could inspire ISIS leadership in the Middle East and win its official endorsement as its Southeast Asian affiliate.
The deaths of the soldiers takes the number of security force members killed to 38, with 19 civilians and 120 rebel fighters killed in the battles in Marawi over the nine days.
Lorenzana said insurgents who were Saudi, Malaysian, Indonesian, Yemeni, and Chechen were among eight foreigners killed in the fighting, in what experts say is a sign the Philippines may have a major problem on its hands.
An exodus of residents from mainly Muslim Marawi started on May 23, when the Maute rebels ran amok, torching and seizing buildings, stealing police weapons and vehicles, taking hostages, and freeing jailed rebels to rejoin their fight.
The military added 21 armored vehicles and a third battalion of troops to the operation on Thursday to put an end to the occupation.
Lorenzana said the military might suspend air strikes, describing the rebels as a small force that "cannot hold that long".
Bombardments by OV-10 light attack aircraft were carried for over an hour earlier today (Thursday). Troops engaged rebel snipers, as helicopters circled, identifying targets.
President Rodrigo Duterte is concerned radical ideology is spreading in the southern Philippines and it could become a haven for militants forced out of Iraq and Syria.
He made no mention of the soldier's accidental deaths by air force planes in a speech on Thursday. He said the Maute group was being given too much credit, and that the occupation of Marawi was the work of ISIS, and planned a long time ago.
"You know, the rebellion in Mindanao, it's not Maute, it's purely ISIS," he said.
ISIS flags around Marawi have been spotted by media. Images have been circulated widely on social media of smiling fighters dressed in black attire typical of the group, posing with trophies that include stolen government weapons and armored vehicles hit by rocket-propelled grenades.
A video posted on the website of ISIS's Amaq news agency shows fighters alongside bodies of dead soldiers inside a vehicle. The authenticity of the video and the images on social media could not be independently verified.
Military spokesman Restituto Padilla said an investigation would be held to establish how the air force plane killed ground troops.
"The risk involved in being a soldier, being an airman, being a sailor, being a marine is very much in the heart of every soldier," he said.
"He knows where we are entering into. But the mission continues."
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), true to its high principles, has expressed concern for those who remained trapped in the region and also called for an humanitarian ceasefire.