Hostages who have joined the Maute Group will be treated as terrorists like their adopted comrades, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) warned on Monday.
But AFP public affairs chief Col. Edgard Arevalo said the military cannot identify with certainty who among the hostages in the siege of Marawi City have turned into gunmen of the Maute Group, which is affiliated with the Islamic State (IS).
“If they will be the one shooting at us first, we have to continue our combat operations and then we have to also protect ourselves especially if we are the ones being shot at first [by the hostages forced to fight soldiers],” Arevalo told reporters in Camp Aguinaldo, the AFP’s general headquarters in Quezon City.
“They will be treated as part of the local terrorist group especially if we do not have information if that person was an enemy or a real Maute-ISIS fighter or that person was forced to fight,” he said, using another acronym for the IS—Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
The latest tally from the military showed that 749 terrorists and 47 civilians had been killed in the four-month-old fighting in Marawi City, Lanao del Sur.
According to Arevalo, hostages forced to fight government troops and killed in combat would have to be counted as Maute casualties.
Government forces are communicating with the hostages inside the main battle zone in order to determine whether any hostage has turned into a terrorist.
Forty-three hostages remain inside the battle zone, according to Arevalo.
He called for more patience from the public as the fighting had entered the month of October, citing challenges being faced by troops in the field.
Last week, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the fighting could be over as the month of October approached but that deadline was not met as clashes continued on Sunday, October 1.
Arevalo said the military would be needing “a few more days” to finish the war and in clearing strongholds of the Maute bandits.
“We saw that there was a great reduction of strength and capability from the Maute to withstand the onslaught of our personnel but we also cannot belittle [them]. What we are saying is that we have the upper hand, we gained the momentum, the operational tempo is with us,” he added.
“We are just as eager as you are in finishing this war, we are just as interested as everyone else to ensure that we would be able to finish this and to get into full swing the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Marawi,” Arevalo said.
About eight to nine hectares of a highly-urbanized area with tall buildings remain as maneuvering ground of the Maute Group in Marawi, according to him.
The AFP public affairs chief said the military is confident that Omarkhayam Maute and Southeast Asian “emir” of the IS group Isnilon Hapilon are still within the main battle area, citing reports.
He called on the two top Maute leaders to surrender to authorities, assuring them that they will be treated “humanely.”
Hapilon and Omarkhayam, however, would have to face consequences of their actions in aiming to establish an independent Islamic state in Marawi City, Arevalo said.
The military would also prefer to have Hapilon and Omarkhayam alive once they are found by the government within the area but Arevalo said the two terror leaders will not let themselves to be captured alive.
“But, if we will be able to capture them alive, that will be good so that we can have our chance to ask them about other information that would come straight from them, but if in any case, they already see that they are on the losing end, that they should surrender now,” he added.