Some members of the Islamic State-linked Maute group may have disguised themselves as evacuees from Marawi City and could have reached Iligan and Cagayan de Oro cities, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) warned on Friday.
As a result, government forces tightened security in Iligan and Cagayan de Oro, said Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla Jr., spokesman for the AFP.
“We do not deny that there could have been…the possibility [that]a few of these [Maute] fighters who came from Marawi…may have mixed with the evacuees and refugees who are leaving Marawi,” Padilla told reporters in Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City.
A number of Maute members have been captured by the AFP and the Philippine National Police outside Marawi, including Maute elders Cayamora and Farhana and suspected bomb-maker Mohammad Maute.
The AFP spokesman said the arrest of some of relatives of the Maute brothers Omar and Abdullah does not mean Iligan and Cagayan de Oro were free of any Maute men.
“This is why ever since, we have heightened the security postures…of not only in Marawi but in Iligan and Cagayan de Oro,” Padilla said.
As of the latest count released by the AFP, 225 members of the Maute group have been killed after 26 days of fighting in Marawi City. The military also reported 59 government casualties.
At least 208 firearms were recovered by government troops.
Rescued civilians by security forces, civil society organizations and non-government organizations have reached 1,629. However, 26 civilians trapped in the city were killed by terrorists.
There are still 600 civilians trapped in the city.
“There are efforts to reach the residents who are still trapped via text messaging and via loud speakers to forewarn them or give them advice on how to go about doing a safe escape,” Padilla said.
Residents urged to use guns
In Iligan City, Mayor Celso Regencia has imposed stricter inspections on travellers from Marawi and Lanao del Norte using the streets of Iligan going to Cagayan de Oro.
The city’s shooters’ club has also volunteered to assist, after Regencia encouraged residents to arm themselves.
“Mayor Regencia really wants to empower the people of Iligan to become vigilant in view of the volatile peace and order situation. The local government is committed to protect the lives and properties of Iliganons,” city spokesman Joe Pantoja said.
A Muslim resident of Iligan who asked not to be named however said Muslims would most likely be singled out or tagged as coddlers of terrorists.
“We are not hiding terrorists in our homes, our relatives from Marawi are just seeking shelter here,” he told The Manila Times.
Maute ‘significantly degraded’
At any rate, the capabilities of the Maute group have been “significantly degraded,” Padilla said in a separate briefing at the Palace. It will thus be unable to do a repeat of Marawi in Iligan and Cagayan de Oro, he claimed.
“Safe to say, I can tell you, they don’t have the capacity to do what they did in Marawi anymore. Their capabilities have been significantly degraded, and they have specifically targeted Marawi to sow terror, wreak havoc, possibly kidnap people, destroy homes, schools, what have you. And that’s what exactly they did,” Padilla said.
“So any kind of action of that extent will not happen in Iligan and Cagayan de Oro. And we are taking up proactive measures to ensure that even an attempt to sow some confusion or sow terror in these areas by small actions will be prevented,” he added.
He added that “things are working to our advantage” because the military need not line up at the courts to get search or arrest warrants, as the writ of habeas corpus has been suspended amid the imposition of martial law in Mindanao.
“If you don’t have martial law, then you cannot just arrest [suspects]if they don’t have standing warrants. But right now, even if they don’t even have warrants of arrests or standing warrants, you can arrest them and just file the necessary cases in the court three days after,” Padilla explained.
Pantoja told The Manila Times the uprising of armed groups in Marawi could have also stemmed from the disruption in the illegal drug trade in the area following the government’s anti-narcotics drive. Two village captains have been killed by anti-drug operatives, he noted.
“Iligan is a big drug market. Authorities seized kilos of shabu in their previous operations in some areas. There are lots of possible users here. This is a key area to them and because of the intensified campaign against drugs [by the Duterte administration]their business is disrupted,” Pantoja said.
WITH RAUL DINAMPO AND CATHERINE S. VALENTE