Two Filipino militants who fought in the southern Philippine city of Marawi have been captured in Cagayan de Oro after they allegedly scouted the area for bombing targets, police said Thursday.
The suspects, identified as Eyadzhemar Abdulsalam, 26, and Dianne Catherine Palmitos, 25, were believed to be members of the Maute group, a militant faction that provided fighters to Isnilon Hapilon, the regional leader aligned with the Islamic State (IS), during the five-month siege of Marawi last year.
They were caught trying to sneak into Cagayan de Oro Wednesday aboard a passenger bus, regional police spokesman Superintendent Lemuel Gonda said.
“We detained them. They planned to carry out bomb attacks early this year in Cagayan de Oro but our authorities prevented it,” he said, adding the two were facing charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives.
Police sources said the duo traveled from Manila to the southern city of General Santos, where they took the bus going to Cagayan de Oro, more than 100 km (62 miles) from Marawi city.
Officers recovered a grenade and a hand gun, and the two suspects were taken in for interrogation, police said.
The pair were allegedly part of the Maute faction tasked with providing medical supplies to fighters at the height of the siege last year, the worst outbreak of violence in the south in recent years that left more than 1,200, mostly militants, dead.
Hapilon launched the siege in May 2017 with a vision of transforming the Muslim city of Marawi into the IS seat of power in Southeast Asia. With him were Abu Sayyaf fighters, militants from the Maute faction and fighters from the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
The siege took the government of President Rodrigo Duterte by surprise, forcing him to ask for assistance from long-time allies the United States and Australia.
But the militants dug in and engaged the soldiers in urban street-by-street warfare, using dozens of civilians as human shields and hiding in mosques to slow the government’s assault.
Marawi’s more than 200,000 residents fled, and the city was transformed into a wasteland of pockmarked and empty buildings.
A year later, much of the city remains in ruins, with thousands still living in evacuation camps. Some residents who were allowed to return to their homes in April and May reported finding skeletal remains.
Last week, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced a breakthrough in the government’s goal “to achieve peace without bloodshed” in Mindanao following the surrender in March of Nhurhassan Jamiri, a little-known Abu Sayyaf commander and 13 of his followers on the island of Basilan.
Jamiri has been identified as one of two top leaders of Abu Sayyaf based in Basilan, where the militant group was established in the early 1990s.
The other leader is Furuji Indama, who remains at large. The overall operations officer and chief of the group in Basilan, he apparently is being groomed to succeed Hapilon, military sources said.
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato City, Philippines contributed to this report.