The Philippine government on Friday said foreign terrorists were among those killed in the ongoing firefights with the Islamic State (IS)-linked Maute group in Marawi City.
In a news conference in Davao City, Solicitor General Jose Calida confirmed that foreign terrorists were fighting government troops alongside the IS-inspired group in Mindanao.
“What’s happening in Mindanao is no longer a rebellion of Filipino citizens. It has transmogrified into invasion by foreign terrorists who heeded the clarion call of the ISIS to go to the Philippines if they find difficulty in going to Iraq or Syria,” Calida told reporters, using another name for IS.
Calida said some of those fighters killed by government troops included Malaysians, Indonesians from Singapore, and other foreign jihadists.
“Before it was just a local terrorist group. But now, there is now an ideology, they have subscribed to the ideology of the ISIS and they have pledged allegiance to the flag of ISIS. So they want to create Mindanao as part of the caliphate,” he said.
Calida also said the terrorist group was aiming to carve an IS “province” in Mindanao and the government was not the only target of their aggression.
“People they consider as infidels, whether Christians or Muslims, are also targets of opportunity,” he said. “What is worrisome is that the ISIS has radicalized a number of Filipino Muslim youth.”
Armed Forces spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla, in the same news conference, said that of the 31 alleged Maute group members killed in clashes with government troops, six had been identified as foreigners.
“We are continuously verifying that there have been a number of them who have been killed. There is a certain information that we received which confirmed the killing of 12 members of this group and about half of that number are foreign terrorists. Malaysians, Indonesians, and one other,” Padilla said.
“And yes we have been communicating with their governments to cooperate on whatever assistance, information-wise, can be provided to us, as well as what we can provide to assist them,” he added.
Padilla said foreign terrorists have been in the country for a long time and have been aiding local terrorists in bomb-making.
“There are certain foreign elements here who have been in the country for a long time, aiding these terrorists in skills related to terrorism primarily bomb making,” he said.
Surgical air strikes
Padilla also said efforts to rescue stranded residents remain, as he assured locals that military was only conducting “surgical air strikes” to avoid civilian deaths and damage to property.
“Again, the assurance that we give you is that we are taking every precaution to avoid collateral damage, damage to private property which you have heavily invested on your whole lives, as well as the loss of innocent lives,” Padilla added.
On Tuesday, President Rodrigo Duterte placed all of Mindanao under martial law after government troops clashed with terrorist group Maute.
Troops were pursuing bandits from Maute group while on a mission to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, the suspected leader of the IS in Southeast Asia, when the terror group took hostages.
The US government offers $5 million for any information that will lead to Hapilon’s arrest.
Maute blending with civilians?
Unknown to the military, members of the Maute group have been going in and out of their hideout in Marawi City incognito, blending with civilians.
The Manila Times learned from a government source that the rebels – 50 of them – have made the Madrasah (Arabic School) Abrar 2 kilometers away from the Marawi City commercial and business district as their base. It’s the same place where the rebels meet together, the source added.
“They go out in civilians clothes, and when they get back in, they hold powerful arms, ready to engage the military,” the source told The Manila Times.
At around 3:27 p.m. on Friday, another exchange of fire between the rebels and the military ensued, with some casualties reported on the rebel side.
The other barangay (villages) said to be Maute strongholds are Pamping, Lumbaka, Madaya, Raya Madaya, Marinaot, Lilod and Bless.
Some residents refused to leave their homes amid the gun fire. Food and water are running out.
“No relief goods are allowed by the troops to enter the city premises as they want all civilians to get out so they can proceed with the artillery attack, pero matitigas ang ulo ng ibang residente [but the residents are adamant],” the source said.
US, Russia offer aid
Palace spokesman Ernesto Abella said the US and Russia have both offered to aid the Philippines in its counter-terrorism efforts.
“The press secretary of the US has expressed solidarity with the Philippines and condemns the recent violence perpetrated by an ISIS-linked terrorist group in Marawi in southern Philippines and he stated that the US will continue to provide support and assistance to Philippine counter-terrorism groups,” he said.
Pressed for more information on the assistance the US would provide, Abella said he could not share any more information.
As for Russia, Abella disclosed that Moscow had also expressed willingness to help the Philippines combat terrorism.
“Also, the new Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano thanked Moscow for its commitment to strengthen cooperation with Manila, particularly in security and intelligence cooperation and in stepping up measures to combat terrorism, especially amid violence in Southern Philippines,” he said.
with ARLO CUSTODIO