Two suspected Maute militants were captured in Manila, including one believed to have participated in killing several Christian hostages during last year’s siege of the southern Marawi by Islamic State-linked extremists, the military said Monday.
Police and civilian intelligence operatives apprehended Nasser Lomondot, a sub-leader of the Maute gang, and Rizasalam Lomondot in the Tondo district of the Philippine capital on Saturday, authorities said. Officials did not say if the two were related.
Army Infantry Division spokesman Maj. Ronald Suscano said the suspects were captured after being observed in the area. The operatives seized pistols and a hand grenade.
“Lomondot was responsible for the killing of some of the women and children hostages at the height of the five-month Marawi siege,” Suscano told BenarNews.
In May 2017, Maute gang members joined Islamic State (IS) local leader Isnilon Hapilon when his group ransacked Marawi, destroying a local church, killing Christians and holding dozens of hostages, including women and children.
Backed by foreign fighters from Southeast Asia and the Middle East, Hapilon’s group engaged government troops in some of the fiercest fighting in recent years, forcing President Rodrigo Duterte to call for military assistance from long-time military allies the United States and Australia.
Successive air raids flattened much of Marawi, and a portion of the once-prosperous predominately Muslim city remains off limits to the city’s 200,000 residents, many of whom remain in evacuation centers four months after the battle ended.
Hapilon and the top leaders of the Maute gang were killed in October, but Duterte said dozens were believed to have escaped and fanned out into remote areas to recruit new fighters. At least 1,200 people were killed in the battle, most of them militants.
Suscano said the arrested militants were part of a Maute gang that engaged troops in a gun battle in January in a town outside Marawi. Three enemy fighters were wounded and arrested in that firefight.
“The police authorities in Manila will file appropriate criminal charges,” Suscano said.
Troops were continuing to receive intelligence reports that foreign fighters were trying to make their way into the south to link up with what remains of those who were routed in Marawi, he said. In particular, militants could likely sneak into remote parts of Lake Lanao near Marawi, Suscano warned.
Philippine officials have arrested at least four foreigners since January – including a suspected IS bomber from the Middle East and a Spanish national – on anti-terrorism charges.
Murad Ebrahim, leader of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, formerly the country’s largest Muslim separatist force until it signed a peace deal with Manila, said his men had received intelligence reports of foreigners moving into areas in the south believed controlled by the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).
ASG is a kidnap for ransom gang specializing in bombings, kidnappings and beheadings and Hapilon was one of its commanders before he pledged allegiance to IS.
Foreign terrorist organization
Last month, the U.S. government officially designated the Maute group on its list of foreign terrorist organizations affiliated with the IS, making it a crime for any citizen to provide, or attempt to conspire to provide material support or resources to the group.
Meanwhile, Duterte, who visited Marawi last week, vowed to speed up the rehabilitation of the city, even as large parts of the city still lay in ruins.
He inaugurated a one-hectare (2.5-acre) housing area for those displaced by the fighting on the outskirts of the city, and delivered a message for the community.
“I am offering you my heartfelt apology. I ask for forgiveness,” Duterte said. “That is why I promised you that right after the war, rehabilitation will start immediately. Our soldiers fought the Maute terrorists to recover your houses.”
He vowed to fully rebuild and rehabilitate Marawi by the time he ends his six-year term in 2022, even at the cost of borrowing a huge amount to pay for the projects.