Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Monday said Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon was still in Marawi City, denying reports the wanted terrorist said to be the Islamic State’s (IS) “emir” in Southeast Asia had slipped through the military dragnet.
Speaking to reporters, Lorenzana maintained that Hapilon, who carries a $5-million bounty on his head courtesy of the US government, remained in the combat zone.
“According to our latest information, he is still inside Marawi. In fact, there’s this information that we got this morning that he is still hiding in one of the mosques there in Marawi,” Lorenzana said during the “Mindanao Hour” news briefing in Malacañang.
The Defense chief said the latest information “may be correct” as the military intelligence group in Basilan had yet to see Hapilon in the island province.
“There were three fighters that arrived in Basilan from Marawi more than a week ago. Isnilon is not one of them. We believe he’s still in Marawi,” Lorenzana said.
The military earlier said it was still gathering proof on the whereabouts of Hapilon, who had joined forces with the IS-linked Maute group.
Hapilon was the target of the military raid in Marawi on May 23 that triggered the fighting and forced President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law.
Duterte has offered an additional P10-million reward for the “neutralization” of Hapilon, on top of the $5-million bounty from the US government.
Hapilon “has an outstanding warrant of arrest for kidnapping with ransom and serious illegal detention,” the military had said.
Gov’t clears nearly 100 buildings in Marawi
Also on Monday, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said government security forces were “gaining more ground” in the battle zone in Marawi City as they were able to clear nearly 100 buildings previously occupied by the Maute group,
In a news briefing in Marawi City, Lt. Col. Jo-ar Herrera, spokesman for the military’s Joint Task Force Marawi, said government forces were able to clear 57 buildings over the weekend.
“This is one of the significant developments [as of Sunday], we were able to clear 57 buildings, these 57 buildings are previously held, previously [served]as enemy battle positions, so these are the key terrains we got,” said Herrera.
On Saturday, he said, the military was able to clear 40 buildings and houses in the besieged city, which means that the area covered by the government troops was “getting wider everyday.”
Herrera pointed out that the clearing operations were difficult, given the presence of improvised explosives and booby traps left by the Maute gunmen in each building.
“This is a combination of combat and clearing operations and at the same time, [we are]gaining more grounds and we are moving towards the center of the gravity of the enemy,” he said.
The military said 84 have been killed on the part of the government, along with 39 civilians. At least 337 members of the Maute group have also been killed.
Herrera also said his unit had received reports that some terrorists wanted to flee the battle zone and surrender to authorities but were executed by their leaders.
Earlier, Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez, commander of the Western Mindanao Command, disclosed that Muslim religious leaders went to “ground zero” in Marawi to convince the Maute members to release hostages, or better yet, surrender.
Reports also indicated there was infighting among the Maute members, which Herrera described as problems stemming from the “crumbling or failure” of the Maute leadership.
“For the past week, we have been monitoring that there was a leadership crisis, divisiveness because of issues with money, issue of gold they obtained because accordingly, it was not shared [among members and other leaders],” he said.
The AFP continued to resist calls to impose a deadline to free Marawi.
“We are very focused on our mission here to liberate Marawi City, we did not provide any timeline or deadline for our campaign to liberate Mafrawi City,” said Herrera.
“We our doing our best to optimize all our resources here, of course with the support of the people, the local government and other sectors…we are maximizing all the strengths of the AFP and the Philippine National Police to finish the job, accomplish the mission as soon as possible,” he added.
With DEMPSEY REYES