ZAMBOANGA CITY: The Islamic State (IS) has claimed its local counterparts have killed 19 soldiers in an ambush in the besieged city of Marawi where security forces are battling militants for over two months now.
The IS made the announcement on Friday through its self-styled Amaq news agency after the deadly attack on a group of government troops sent to fight the militants.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) vehemently denied reports that Maute Group terrorists have killed 19 soldiers involved in the ongoing clearing operations in Marawi City.
“That (report) is pure propaganda. Do not believe those sites. We are transparent and we do not report contrived data,” AFP spokesperson Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla Jr, said on Saturday.
Fighting has entered its third month and President Rodrigo Duterte said it might be over soon, but there were no signs of the militants backing down.
The local jihadists, composed of Abu Sayyaf fighters and members of the Maute clan, and other pro-IS groups are also being backed up by foreign militants —some from Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, according to the Philippine military.
Just recently, Amaq also released a video clip showing local terrorists fighting security forces in Marawi. The two-minute clip showed a small group of fighters led by Omar Maute firing at soldiers from a house in a village at the heart of the city.
Maute and his older brother Abdullah were previously reported by the military to have died—along with some 400 militants—in clashes with army soldiers, although security officials provided no proof of this, except for intelligence information from civilians.
In the video, militants—armed with automatic weapons and sniper rifles, could be seen firing at soldiers, but it was unclear whether there had been casualties in the fighting. It was unknown whether military officials had seen the video that was released by the IS website on July 20.
The military said 114 soldiers have so far died with more than 900 wounded in the battle since May 23 when local militants occupied Marawi, the capital of Lanao del Sur in the Muslim autonomous region. The extremists have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and vowed to put up an IS province in the troubled region.
The military has insisted that 471 terrorists have also been killed, and 45 civilians slain, in the battle that had displaced some 200,000 people.
Government security forces have rescued 1,723 civilians, cleared 26 buildings, and recovered 576 firearms.
Govt warns vs ‘recruitment’
The government on Saturday warned the public against the recruitment of civilians for terrorist activities in Mindanao as fighting in Marawi entered its 68th day.
Presidential Peace Adviser Jesus Dureza issued the warning following the arrest of 60 men in two separate incidents in the Zamboanga Peninsula on Tuesday.
“[Those] unscrupulous individuals are recruiting male civilians in Mindanao to be ‘integrated’ into the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) using the name of the MNLF (Moro Nation Liberation Front) and other groups. My office has received similar reports from other areas of Mindanao,” Dureza said.
“There is no ongoing ‘integration’ arrangement at all between the government and any group or faction under the peace process. This could be a scam or the handiwork of terrorists recruiting men to fight the government,” he added.
However, Dureza refused to connect the alleged recruitment efforts to the ongoing attacks by Maute terrorists in Marawi City.
“Let’s wait for the results of the investigation. Still ongoing… My statement and the public knowing about their arrest hopefully will counter whatever plans if any the recruiters have,” Dureza said in a text message.
In a statement, the AFP Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) said the suspects would face rebellion charges for “covert acts tending to reinforce the Maute-IS [Islamic State] terrorists fighting government in Marawi.”
“They were flown by a Philippine Air Force plane to Manila for further questioning and custody in an appropriate facility while charges are being prepared for violation of the Revised Penal Code relating to the crime of rebellion,” it said.
The military said 33 men were arrested at a military checkpoint in Ipil, Zamboanga del Sur, while 27 others were apprehended in a house in Guiwan, Zamboanga City.
Military and police uniforms were confiscated from both groups.
Upon interrogation, they claimed they were members of the MNLF on their way to Camp Jabal Nur in Lanao del Sur for training prior to integration into the AFP.
According to the military, the MNLF had denied links to both groups.
Westmincom chief Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr. said: “These two instances of arrest, and of the other groups who knowingly misrepresented themselves to be soldiers and policemen on their way to Marawi City, should allay the fears of our people of the likelihood of the rebellion in Marawi spilling over to their places because the military and the police are doing their level best to contain it.”
The Maute group waged attacks in Marawi City on May 23, prompting President Duterte to declare martial law and suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in Mindanao for a period of 60 days. Congress on July 22 extended the martial law declaration up to December 31.
WITH CATHERINE S. VALENTE and PNA