Local officials in the war-torn Philippine city of Marawi buried at least 40 unclaimed bodies on Thursday, after American forensics experts completed gathering DNA samples to determine their identities.
No relatives came forward to claim the bodies, leading authorities to believe they were among hundreds of pro-Islamic State (IS) militants killed during a battle with Philippine government forces in the southern city that has lasted more than four months.
Many of the bodies bore bullet wounds that were consistent with bullets used against the enemy by Philippine troops, Anir Mindalano, chief of Marawi’s disaster risk management office, told reporters.
He said the bodies were retrieved from the frontline weeks ago, but no one came to claim them.
American forensics experts had gone and collected DNA samples from the bodies to help local authorities with the mammoth task of identifying each fatality. But well-placed sources said they also were searching for the body of Abdullah Maute, one of two brothers who lead the IS-linked militants here.
“There were civilians that were only forced to go with the ISIS. No one came forward to claim their remains,” Mindalano said, referring to IS by another acronym.
Thursday’s mass burial was the third such one carried out so far, he said.
The body of a Marine who was mistakenly buried earlier needed to be exhumed, Mindalano said. The soldier was retrieved from the battle field earlier but was among the bodies that were unclaimed and buried, underscoring the chaotic situation.
Forensic tests had established the DNA of Private First Class Alejandro Balian, who had earlier gone missing on the battlefield.
Workers carry a body bag for burial at the Maqbarah Muslim public cemetery in Marawi, Oct. 5, 2017. [Richel V. Umel/BenarNews]
Caucasians believed to be among dead
Malaysia’s embassy in Manila had also asked authorities here to check whether the bodies of any Malaysian militants were among the cadavers that were buried.
“It’s not official. He gave us a photograph but it’s impossible to identify because the bodies were already in state of decomposition,” said Sani Saber, a member of the provincial management council.
Sr. Supt. Mary Joy Mag-Abu, who heads the crime-scene operations unit for the local police force, urged relatives of those still missing in the conflict to come forward and give DNA samples.
“If there is a match we will immediately call the concerned because we have their data,” she said.
“We are encouraging those who have not yet found their relatives to come to our office and get a DNA sample for free. Compared to bombing and flash floods, this is a long process and then the health hazard of going the autopsy,” she added.
At the same time, she said there were alleged foreigners among the dead, based on their outer features.
“We identify the foreigners by their physical appearance. Some are Caucasian,” Mag-abu said, but did not elaborate.
Meanwhile, the military said that Isnilon Hapilon, the head of the Philippine branch of IS who is also a commander of the local Abu Sayyaf militant group, and Omarkhayam Maute, both remained alive and were still leading their dwindling forces in the fighting in Marawi.
This was based on accounts by 17 hostages who were rescued the other day by troops.
“We talked to one of the hostages and he confirmed that Hapilon and Omar are still alive inside,” said local military task force chief Col. Romeo Brawner.
Since May 23, when the militants launched their daring siege of Marawi, 765 enemy fighters and 155 soldiers and policemen and 47 civilians have been slain. As many as 1,750 people who were trapped in the crossfire or held hostage by the gunmen had also been rescued.
More than 1,600 troops were also wounded, many by improvised explosive devices that were scattered by the fleeing gunmen as the soldiers closed in on them.
“We sustained four wounded in action yesterday in the battle field,” Brawner said.
‘I really hate these terrorists’
President Rodrigo Duterte has admitted to have been taken by surprised by the attack, which took place as he and top security officials were on a foreign trip.
He placed the entire southern Mindanao region under martial law, and asked the United States and Australia to help in providing intelligence.
On Thursday, Duterte said he was sorry for the mounting government casualties, even as he vowed that the fight to rid the southern region of terrorists would go on.
“There is so much terrorism and a lot of extortion going around,” he said in a speech before agriculture companies in Manila. “We still have to finish the siege in Marawi. It’s nearing the end. But it grieves me to see everyone there his dying.”
“I really hate these terrorists, especially the foreign ones coming in to further aggravate or exacerbate the situation,” Duterte said.
Workers at the cemetery stand near bags containing unclaimed bodies that were found in the rubble in Marawi, Oct. 5, 2017. [Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews]