American forensics experts have been helping their Filipino counterparts in determining whether foreign terrorists were among 40 bodies recovered from the ruins of the southern Philippine city of Marawi, where Islamic State-linked militants are still holding out, officials said Monday.
Four members of the U.S. forces have been sent to Iligan, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Marawi, to observe autopsies and collect samples for DNA testing, said local forensics head police Senior Supt. Mary Lecoy Mag-abo.
Most of the bodies bore gunshot and shrapnel wounds, she said.
“The U.S. forces are interested to determine and know the possibilities that there are foreign terrorists aside from Maute fighters who fought and were killed by the military in Marawi,” Mag-abo said.
She said the bodies were recovered from inside the main battle area, and that they would be buried by Thursday because no one has come forward to claim them.
"Some of the 40 remains are skeletons and some are in advanced stage of decomposition,” she said.
It was not clear whether the bodies included the remains of five militant leaders whose deaths were announced late last week, including Abdullah Maute and two foreigners the military did not identify by name.
Abdullah is the brother of Omarkhayam Maute, who is believed still fighting alongside Isnilon Hapilon, an Abu Sayyaf commander and the overall Islamic State (IS) leader in the country.
Abdullah and his lesser-known brothers Madhi and Utto were killed together with two foreign fighters during recent clashes in Marawi, the military said.
The Maute gang, a small band of militants, backed Hapilon when his forces took over the city of Marawi on May 23. Fighters from Southeast Asia and the Middle East were said to be involved in the fighting as well.
Hapilon, who is on Washington’s list of most-wanted terrorists, was believed still in command of the remaining militants, estimated by officials to number between to 45 and 80.
The militants seized up to 300 hostages, including women and children, at the start of the violence. The men and boys in the group were forced to wear black and to fight alongside the militants, the military said.
Many of the hostages escaped or were rescued, including Marawi’s Catholic priest who escaped unharmed last month as troops closed in on the enemy.
Col. Romeo Brawner, deputy commander of the local military task force, said the gunmen may have killed some of their hostages, but he could not say how many of the remaining 40-45 captives had been executed.
“According to the other rescued hostages, some of the hostages who were considered to be a burden were also killed by the Maute terrorists,” he said.
At least 749 enemy fighters, 155 government forces and 47 civilians had been killed in fighting during the past four months. The civilian death toll, however, could go up pending final analysis of the bodies recovered.
Brawner said 1,733 civilians trapped in the fighting or taken hostage had been rescued, and a cache of unexploded homemade bombs and more than 700 firearms had also been recovered from slain militants.
On Sunday, about 300 soldiers attended a mass at the St. Mary's Catholic Church, which was occupied by the militants during the early days of the Marawi fighting.
In a video and pictures released by the military, Army Capt. Alfredo Era Jr., a military chaplain, was shown officiating the church service inside the war zone.
It was the first mass officiated there since fighting began, and the church was still standing despite massive damage. Early in the fighting, a video posted by the militants on the Internet showed them ransacking the church, destroying statues and burning bibles.
Brawner said loud exchanges of gunfire could be heard during the sermon in the bullet-riddled church.
President Rodrigo Duterte, in a visit to Marawi on Monday, vowed to rebuild the ruined Islamic city of 200,000.
“We don’t like what happened here. This is not what the government wants. Our soldiers hate killings and wounding people. You see, even when there’s fighting, they find time to rebuild,” he said during a speech at an evacuation center. “That to me is enough.”
He called on the public to shun terrorism and avoid the bloody examples of the Middle East, where the cities of Aleppo in Syria and Mosul in northern Iraq had been destroyed in the name of religion.
“It will give us nothing except trouble. It is an imported ideology from the Middle East. Look what happened to Middle East? It used to be the center of civilization. All the golden things of the past were there. Now it’s all gone and only because of terrorist activities,” he said.
Meanwhile, the army said Monday its forces were going after another Muslim rebel faction that had pledged allegiance to the IS and vowed to help the Marawi militants.
Troops recovered a cache of firearms belonging to the slain fighters, who are believed to belong to the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, near the village of Tee in the southern province of Maguindanao.
Mark Navales in Cotabato city contributed to this report.