MARAWI CITY: More than 500 families in three towns of Lanao del Sur province were dislocated from their homes as the military intensified its offensives against the extremist Maute group that is trying to establish an Islamic State (IS) caliphate in the country.
Salma Tamano, Lanao del Sur provincial information officer, said a total of 532 families or 2,444 individuals were dislocated from their homes in Piagapo, Wato-Balindong and Marantao as they fled to safe areas and designated evacuation centers manned by police forces.
Most of the evacuees, with 300 families coming from Piagapo, where ground troops backed by artillery and air supports are bombarding the rebels.
The others—114 in Wato-Balindong and 118 in Marantao— including three pregnant women, a stroke patient and senior citizens were dislocated from the two remote villages near the clash sites in Piagapo.
Tamano said Gov. Soraya Alonto Adiong and Vice Gov. Bombit Alonto Adiong distributed relief goods to the evacuees.
Senior Supt. Oscar Nantes, provincial police director, said police forces provided the “necessary security requirement” to the military operation.
Army officials in Lanao del Sur said soldiers were deployed to Piagapo on urgent request of villagers who were alarmed by the entry into far-flung villages of gunmen who are neither members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) nor the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
The Maute group, also known as the Dawlah Islamiya, is led by siblings Omar and Abdullah Maute, both ethnic Maranaos, who were born and grew up in Butig town in the first district of Lanao del Sur.
The group boasts of loyalty to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and is using the black ISIS flag as its revolutionary banner.
Maute gunmen, feared for their enforcement of a ruthless Taliban-style justice system in areas where they operate, have been sowing terror in the hinterlands of Lanao del Sur since 2015.
They collect “revolutionary taxes” from hapless peasants at gunpoint and interfere with the affairs of duly-constituted barangay (village) governments.
The intermittent Maute-military clashes in Piagapo since early Saturday reportedly erupted when extremists opened fire on soldiers patrolling the Gakap area southeast of the municipality.
Vice Gov. Mamintal Adiong, Jr., a senior member of the Lanao del Sur provincial peace and order council, has sent emissaries to convince the armed groups in Piagapo to leave the area to prevent the displacement of more villagers.
Captain Jo-ann Petinglay, spokeswoman for the Western Mindanao Command, said the Army units in the municipality will help work out the return of civilians to the villages when hostilities die down.
Brig. Gen. Rolando Bautista, commander of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division that has military jurisdiction over large parts of Lanao del Sur, said the operation was properly coordinated with the community and local government units which “paved the way in pinpointing the location of the terrorist groups.”
The military clarified that the offensives in Piagapo are part of the continuous and “focused military operations” in the province “in accordance with the order of President Rodrigo Duterte to destroy local terrorist groups in the province.”
Meanwhile, the ISIS, in the latest issue of its official gazette Rumiyah, recently marked southern Philippines as part of the “East Asia” Division of “Soldiers of the Khilafah.”
Reliable sources said the ISIS militants are also eyeing the establishment of other factions in Visayas and Luzon over the Leyte bombing earlier this year and the attempted bombing at the US Embassy last year.
The military and police recently clashed with suspected members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), which has also pledged allegiance to the ISIS.
Other groups supporting the ISIS are the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, the Rajah Solaiman Movement composed of Muslim converts and Ansar al-Khilafah in the Philippines.
Another group called Khilafah Islamiyah Movement headed by Humam Abdulnajid serves as the ISIS umbrella organization with its intelligence operatives called Ghuraba or Strangers.