Southeast Asians Back IS-Inspired Filipino Militants in Deadly Battles

Mark Navales, Jeoffrey Maitem, Froilan Gallardo and Richel Umel
Marawi , Philippines
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170526-PH-marawi-620.jpg Black smoke billows from a burning building in the southern Philippine city of Marawi on Friday, as government forces engage dozens of Islamic State-inspired fighters in fierce fighting, May 26, 2017.
Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews

Updated at 6:44 a.m. ET on 2017-05-28

Southeast Asian militants have helped Islamic State-inspired Filipino fighters in their deadly battle against Philippine government troops in the besieged southern city of Marawi, where they are holding several hostages, including a Catholic priest, officials said Friday.

The government’s solicitor-general, Jose Calida, said militants from Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore were providing back-up firepower to the local terror groups Abu Sayyaf and Maute in the fighting since Tuesday in Marawi, capital of Lanao del Sur province on Mindanao island.

Calida said the fierce gunbattle forced Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to place Mindanao under martial law.

"What’s happening in Mindanao is no longer a rebellion of Filipino citizens," Calida said.

"It has transmogrified into invasion by foreign terrorists who heeded the clarion call of the ISIS to go to the Philippines if they find difficulty in going to Iraq or Syria," he said, mentioning the other name of Islamic State.

Officials said that since the fighting began, 31 militants, 11 soldiers and two police officers have been killed. At least 30 soldiers have also been wounded.

Armed forces spokesman Brig. Gen. Resituto Padilla said foreign fighters were monitored to be with the Filipino fighters trying to escape from Marawi, a city of 200,000.

He said that at least six of the slain fighters were believed to be foreigners, based on documents that were recovered from them.

Brig. Gen. Padilla said there were "certain foreign elements" in the south who have been training the militants in bomb making for years.

"There are also Malaysians, Singaporean in the fight that has been ongoing in Marawi. We are continuously verifying that there have been a number of them who have been killed," he said, adding that of the earlier casualty figures about six were "foreign terrorists."

Duterte visited troops in the nearby city of Iligan on Friday and said he was willing to talk with the militants to stop the violence, but warned them he would be harsh if rebuffed.

Duterte said the Marawi clash indicated that the IS has established a foothold locally.

"My message mainly to the terrorists on the other side is: We can still solve this through dialogue," he said.

Small groups of civilians remained trapped as fierce fighting transformed Marawi into a ghost town. Aid groups were trying to reach them as food and water rations were dwindling, eyewitnesses said.

"The fighting and clearing operations are going on. They (the enemy) have occupied vantage positions. … We have carried out several surgical airstrikes to neutralize the bandits," military spokesman Lt. Col. Joar Herrera said.

He said the gunmen had split into smaller groups as they battled government forces in three villages.

Fighting was triggered when the military received reports that Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, who is listed on the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists with a $5 million bounty on his head, had been spotted in Marawi this week.

Government forces moved to arrest him, but were overwhelmed by about 100 fighters armed with high-powered weapons, officials said.

Intense battles

Intense running gunbattles followed, and the gunmen torched several buildings and abducted a Catholic priest and several of his followers.

"The focus of the operations right now is to clear the city of every terrorist," he said. "This clearing operations are now being carried since the other day. And as of midnight last night, I am glad to report to you that we have been able to reach parts of the city, which have been held by some of these terrorist elements the past few days."

Rebel snipers were providing resistance, but the army has been able to move in isolated areas and free trapped residents. Padilla said about 20 civilians who were caught in the crossfire have been rescued.

"Up this moment operations are ongoing and there are still firefights between our forces and those of the terrorists in certain parts of the city," he said. "But the objective of our armed forces is to clear the city the soonest time possible."


Filipino soldiers patrol the streets of Marawi city as they move to dislodge Islamic State-inspired militants that, officials said, are backed by Malaysian, Indonesian and Singaporean fighters, May 25, 2017. [Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews]


Defending martial law

There was ample evidence that the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups were behind a series of attacks across Mindanao cities in recent years, including a September blast that killed 15 in the president's hometown of Davao, Calida, the solicitor-general, said.

Previous bombings in the southern cities of Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat and the islands of Sulu and Basilan "were all perpetrated by either the Maute terrorist group or the Abu Sayyaf," he said.

While the Maute group is smaller, it is believed to have embraced the Islamic State ideology ahead of the more dangerous group Abu Sayyaf, which has been known for a string of high-profile attacks, including bombings and kidnappings. Abu Sayyaf members beheaded a German hostage this year and two Canadians last year.

"The infamous Abu Sayyaf, Isnilon Hapilon, has been declared by the ISIS as its emir or leader in the Philippines," Calida said.

Reports of foreign militants in Mindanao are not new. Filipino Muslim rebel fighters have also been known to cross over to nearby Malaysia and Indonesia to train there, and foreign jihadists have been spotted in rebel camps in the south as early as two decades ago.

In June 2016, a propaganda video showed Malaysian and Indonesian fighters declaring their support for Hapilon (alias Abdullah al-Filipini).

The 21-minute video, viewed by BenarNews, also showed two men and a Filipino carrying out what appeared to be the beheading of three prisoners.

In January, Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar exposed a new IS cell that planned to use the eastern state of Sabah as a transit point for sending militants to the Philippines.

Khalid made the statement after police arrested four people – a Filipino, two Bangladeshi men and a Malaysian woman – during counter-terror raids in Sabah and Kuala Lumpur on Jan. 13 and 19. He said the cell received orders from Mahmud Ahmad, a former lecturer at Malaya University who allegedly became a militant in the southern Philippines, and Hapilon.

In 2015, 44 Filipino police commandos were killed in a firefight in the south when they were sent in to neutralize a Malaysian bomb maker named Marwan, who was also on FBI’s most-wanted list.



Aid agencies help trapped residents

In Marawi on Friday, aid agencies have started arriving in a bid to reach out the people left behind in the city.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said its volunteers were assisting the local government and troops in evacuating the trapped residents and providing them with essentials, including potable water.

Many of those who fled are staying with relatives, while others went to evacuation centers or sought shelters in schools, it said.

“The situation is very fluid. Residents are moving in and out of Marawi, and we are seriously concerned about those who are trapped or have chosen to stay in the city, who are in need of food and water," said ICRC head Pascal Porchet.

Medicines and other supplies, including food have been trucked in the nearby city of Iligan. Humanitarian workers said they anticipate the need for increased help in the coming weeks.

Porchet urged those involved in the fighting to take the necessary steps to spare civilians.

But British aid agency Oxfam said "very little is known of the plight of civilians" who chose to wait it out in Marawi, where sporadic clashes were continuing.

"Aside from sketchy reporting about men, women and children exposed to a higher risk of being killed and injured, there is no actual account of those individuals and families affected and information as to where they will go to for safe evacuation," it said.

It said affected families are left on their own to decide whether it is safer to stay inside their homes or evacuate while they still can.

An earlier version reported incorrectly that the raid by 44 police commandos that targeted Malaysian bomb maker Marwan took place in 2013.


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