Muslim Cops Shield Christians Trapped in Philippine War Zone

Jeoffrey Maitem, Mark Navales and Richel V. Umel
Marawi, Philippines
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170613-PH-marawi-620.jpg Smoke rises after a bomb dropped from a military plane hits a target in the southern Philippine city of Marawi, June 12, 2017.
Mark Navales/BenarNews

Muslim policemen said they protected Christian civilians in the southern Philippine city of Marawi from marauding militants linked to the Islamic State as battles between the gunmen and government forces spilled into a fourth week on Tuesday.

The five police officers told reporters they felt compelled to protect the Christians in the village of Monkado Kadilingan as militants with the Abu Sayyaf Group and the Maute gang, who were backed by foreign fighters, searched every house and demanded to see “non-believers.” The officers and civilians had been trapped in the city for nearly three weeks since the fighting erupted, but they got out and were able to reach the safety of a military-controlled sector.

“We had a chance to escape because we were Muslims, but, as cops, it was our duty to protect the people. We decided to stay because the gunmen would execute the civilians,” officer Lumlan Lidasan said Tuesday. “Three of us had long firearms, so the Maute could not just penetrate the house where we were hiding.”

Lidasan said he and his colleagues were manning an outpost on May 23, when the violence broke out and people panicked. The village chief hid them along with five Christian construction workers in a basement where they survived on dwindling food rations as bombs dropped by government airplanes exploded outside.

The men were in touch with army officers but they were pinned down because Maute and Abu Sayyaf fighters were shooting in their direction. On Monday, they were told that an airstrike was expected to target their area, so they decided to leave.

“The Maute gunmen were shooting at as we ran toward the next building, where we spent the night. My colleague and another civilian were injured,” he added.

At the break of dawn Tuesday, they said they left their hiding place in the building and started walking toward a bridge connecting the rebel-held Bonggolo district to an area considered safe.

One of the civilians, Jenever Velasquez, 26, said they were thankful to the policemen for protecting them. ”If not for them, we would all be dead by now,” she sobbed.

Authorities said more than 70 policemen were believed to be missing throughout Marawi, but they were mostly Muslim and likely still alive and in hiding.

3 weeks and counting

Fighting broke out three weeks after the police and military set out to arrest Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, the acknowledged leader of the Islamic State in the Philippines. They were surprised when he was backed up by Maute fighters and militants from Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, the Middle East and elsewhere.

The gunmen torched buildings in Marawi, and took over large swathes of the city of 200,000 and capital of Lanao del Sur province, in what has become the biggest crisis in President Rodrigo Duterte’s barely year-old presidency.

By Tuesday, the military placed the death toll at more than 200 gunmen, 58 government troops and 26 civilians, according to a government tally.

The military already has missed its earlier deadlines to end the fighting. The battles have displaced tens of thousands, in what aid agencies said was a growing humanitarian crisis.

Reinforcements of military trucks, personnel and other vehicles arrive in Marawi to aid in the battle against Islamic State-linked militants, June 12, 2017. [Mark Navales/BenarNews]

American aid

Duterte has been forced to accept help from the United States whom he had earlier criticized and whose military he had vowed to kick out of the Philippines during his term.

Over the weekend, the U.S. embassy in Manila announced U.S. Special Forces were assisting the Philippine military in its efforts against the militants of Marawi, where they were still clinging to parts of the city.

Although Duterte later said he was unware of the American assistance, officials in his government have since said U.S. military personnel were only providing technical assistance with “no boots on the ground.”

Footage taken of non-Philippine personnel at a military camp in Marawi and of a U.S. spy plane overflying the city (see video) has stirred chatter on social media in the country.

On Monday, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana was quoted as saying that the U.S. had been helping the Philippines since 2002, and that American assistance in intelligence and surveillance work was vital to the military’s efforts to oust the militants from Marawi.

“That’s because they are already here. We no longer have to ask for their help because they are already here helping us. We just utilize them. They’ve been helping us since 2002, they’ve been helping us in Zamboanga,” Lorenzana told a press conference, according to the SunStar, a local news website.

The fighting has displaced tens of thousands, in what aid agencies said was a growing humanitarian crisis with the military already missing its earlier deadlines to end the fighting.


Sabah on alert

In neighboring Malaysia, Wan Abdul Bari Wan, who heads the security command in the eastern part of Sabah state (ESSCOM), said there were growing concerns that Filipino militants who were trying to escape from Marawi might be heading across the sea border to Sabah or Indonesia.

There have also been concerns about Islamic State reinforcements trying to make their way into the Philippines via Sabah to join in the fighting, he said.

Malaysia has placed 15 vessels at strategic locations and the police in the two countries have vowed to cooperate to stop the movement of militants between the two countries, the ESSCOM chief said.

Colin Forsythe in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, contributed to this report.


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