The terrorist Maute group is racked with infighting, with some members of the Islamic State (IS)-linked group said to have been executed by their leaders for attempting to flee the battle zone in Marawi City, the military said on Monday.
Lt. Col. Jo-ar Herrera, spokesman for the military’s Joint Task Force Marawi, said his unit had received reports that the Maute group, which attacked Marawi City on May 23 and remains locked in battle with government troops, was running low on ammunition.
“We have validated reports that there are leadership problems inside [the Maute group]. They also lack ammunition, they have limited maneuver space, which means that their funds are getting smaller,” he said in a news briefing in Marawi City.
As a result, the group’s defensive positions have weakened, he claimed.
Herrera also claimed the Maute men were fighting over money and decision-making, and that some members had attempted to withdraw from the fight and slip away from the group.
“These are the things affecting [them]in terms of morale. They are weakening, they are weak. So these are the manifestations that they are losing. They are losing their ground especially the center of gravity,” he said.
In a separate news briefing at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City, Col. Edgard Arevalo, Armed Forces public affairs chief, said information on the Maute men’s infighting over money and logistics came from accounts of civilians rescued from the terror group.
“There were some members of the Maute group who already wanted to surrender and desert their positions but according to reports, they were executed by members of the Maute group who do not want their members to surrender,” Arevalo told reporters.
The military is also validating reports that Omarkhayam Maute, one of the group’s leaders, was killed and that Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, said to be the IS chieftain in the country, had escaped Marawi.
Maute’s brothers Abdullah and Madi are still alive.
The pair met with peace emissaries during a brief truce on Sunday to discuss the release of hostages.
“We are doing continuous validation…once the leader leaves his soldiers, something might happen with your command and control,” said Herrera.
Hapilon was indicted in Washington for his involvement in the 2001 kidnapping of three Americans in the Philippines. He has a $5 million bounty on his head from the US government and is on its “most wanted” terror list.
Hostages told to shoot soldiers
Arevalo also claimed the Maute group had asked some civilian hostages to join the battle against government troops.
“What is more compelling or telling right now is the report that civilians who were held [as hostages]or under the control of Maute group are now being used as combatants, they were being asked to man battle positions, they were being tasked to take up arms and shoot our soldiers,” he added.
Arevalo said an estimated 150 to 200 hostages remain trapped in Marawi City.
Some 100 to 120 terrorists also remain in the city, he said.
“When we say validation, there is still doubt on [the information from civilians], but the question is, why not, why not believe them if they were the ones who were actually able to stay in the location and see and observe and hear the happenings within the area of these terrorists,” Arevalo said.
The crisis in Marawi stemmed from the botched military and police operation to capture Hapilon, one of the most wanted terrorists in the United States.
On Sunday, the military declared an eight-hour humanitarian pause in observance of Eid’l Fitr, an important religious holiday for Muslims marking the end of Ramadan or the holy month of fasting.
As of the latest count, a total of 290 terrorists have killed in the ongoing fight. On the government side, fighting has claimed the lives of 70 soldiers and policemen.
A total of 27 civilians have been killed since the fighting started on May 23.
Priest seen alive
A Roman Catholic priest abducted by the Maute group has been seen alive, the military said also on Monday as troops pressed on with their offensive.
Fighting resumed with renewed fury on Monday, with government fighter jets and other aircraft seen carrying out bombing attacks while sustained bursts of gunfire could be heard.
“Our offensive operations have resumed and will continue so we can liberate Marawi at the soonest time possible,” Herrera said.
Fires erupted and plumes of dark and white smoke billowed against a blue sky as the bombs slammed into their targets.
But Herrera said the terrorists were also deliberately burning houses and using improvised bombs, booby traps and hostages as human shields to delay the troops’ advance, five weeks into the fighting.
Father Teresito “Chito” Suganob, who was taken hostage along with some parishioners early in the siege, was seen alive on Sunday in a part of the city still in the hands of the extremists.
“We don’t have details of his health. We were just told that he was sighted alive,” Herrera told reporters in Marawi, citing accounts from civilians rescued from the battle zone.
He also said there were about 100 civilian hostages still in the hands of the gunmen, being used as “human shields,” ammunition carriers and stretcher-bearers.