ZAMBOANGA CITY: About 200 civilians remain missing as dozens of local Islamic State (IS) militants, and about 30 hostages, escaped undetected from a mosque where they holed up to attack government security forces in the besieged city of Marawi.
The daring escape was only discovered after troops managed to advance and eventually recapture the mosque from militants on Thursday, hours before President Rodrigo Duterte’s visit to Marawi.
The military trumpeted the “liberation” of the mosque, but it did not say how the IS-linked Maute fighters and their captives managed to escape from thousands of troops who surrounded Marawi, and spy planes and drones monitoring the siege since May 23.
The fate of the hostages, including a Catholic priest and church workers, remains unknown.
Duterte, wearing a Kevlar helmet and a bullet-proof vest, inspected troops in the battlefront and spoke to them.
It was Duterte’s third visit to Marawi since the fighting began on May 23, when militants occupied the city in an effort to put up an Islamic province in the restive region. Security officials also briefed Duterte on the progress of the military operations against the militants.
Duterte assured soldiers of his full support to the military and police forces fighting the IS.
“I would like to reiterate this, I will never abandon you as long as you are doing the right thing. This would include fighting against the terrorists groups, the drug lords or the common criminals as long as you are doing your sworn duty to enforce the law and protect the Republic. Let me emphasize however that you must do your job in accordance with the law,” he said.
Duterte was accompanied by National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, Defense Undersecretary Cesar Yano, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Eduardo Ano and Army Chief Lt. Gen. Glorioso Miranda.
200 civilians unaccounted for
In Manila, Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla, spokesman for the military, said at least 200 civilians were still unaccounted for after 95 days of fighting between government troops and the terrorist Maute group in Marawi City.
The figure included about 30 hostages held by the terrorist Maute group, he said.
“It (number of unaccounted for civilians) is about 200. We are enlisting the help of local government units [in trying to ascertain the number]because there are also bodies that have yet to be claimed in funeral parlors,” Padilla told reporters.
“The 200 would include residents who were not able to escape from the hands of the Maute group, as well as the hostages,” Padilla added.
Six cadavers found have yet to be identified because of their advanced stage of decomposition.
The military vowed to account for the missing civilians and rid Marawi City of terrorists as soon as possible.
“We don’t set deadlines anymore, but rest assured we are doing our best to end this crisis as soon as possible.
We have conducted delicate operations because there are lots of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that could also put the troops in danger,” Padilla said.
On August 10, however, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said fighting could be over in 30 to 60 days.
Padilla claimed the Maute group was down to at least 40 members, from as high as 630.
“We will do our best to quell the remaining resistance,” Padilla added.
President Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao on May 23 to suppress the Maute group led by the Maute brothers Abdullah and Omar and Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, said to be the head of the Islamic State terrorist group in Southeast Asia.
On July 22, Congress extended the President’s martial law declaration to December 31.
with LLANESCA T. PANTI