Fresh fighting erupted Thursday between government forces and more than three dozen militant stragglers in the southern Philippine city of Marawi, officials said, 10 days after the Philippines declared an end to a five-month battle there with pro-Islamic State gunmen.
Officials on Thursday played down the threat, saying enemy combatants no longer were capable of mounting a massive assault. The reports of new clashes came a day after officials announced the capture of Mohammad Ilham Syahputra, an Indonesian militant, after he allegedly swam a lake as he tried to flee the ruined city.
Military officials said Mohammad Ilham had revealed that dozens of Abu Sayyaf and Maute militants were still holed up in the city’s old main battle zone. The Indonesian also provided details about the location of his comrades, they said.
“Based on the revelation of the Indonesian militant that we arrested, around 39 stragglers are still hiding in the main battle zone, that’s why we are continuing our clearing operations,” local military task force head Col. Romeo Brawner told BenarNews.
“He told our investigators that if they are successful in taking Marawi, they are also going to take Iligan and Cagayan de Oro cities,” he said, referring to the two nearest cities north of Marawi.
Two militants were killed on Wednesday evening, including Abu Thala, believed to be the right-hand man of Philippine IS leader and Abu Sayyaf commander Isnilon Hapilon, who was killed in the fighting two weeks ago, local military task force head Col. Romeo Brawner said.
There were no reports of new casualties on Thursday, he said.
Brawner said the militants putting up a fight were considered already an “insignificant” force not capable of heavy damage. But he warned the public to stay vigilant as authorities struggled to restore a sense of normalcy to the ruined city.
Hapilon was slain on Oct. 16 along with Omarkhayam Maute, one of the brothers who led the Maute militant band. Subsequently slain was Mahmud Ahmad, a former Malaysian university professor who allegedly financed the Marawi attack.
The military has said that Mahmud’s death was witnessed by several hostages who had escaped, but his body has yet to be recovered.
On Oct. 23, five months to the day when the fighting broke out, the Philippine government officially declared that the battle was over after the military said it killed the last 42 militants during a final assault.
The government made the announcement during the two-day meeting of ASEAN defense ministers, attended by U.S. defense chief Jim Mattis and his Australian counterpart, Marise Payne. Both countries had lent aerial surveillance support to the Philippine military campaign in Marawi, about 1,170 km (730 miles) south of the country’s capital, Manila.
Women and children trapped
Among those still trapped in the battle zone, according to Brawner, were dependents of members of the Maute gang and Abu Sayyaf militants.
“We have recently rescued children and wives of the Mautes. They are in the hands of our police who are doing investigations about the extent of their involvement. We have information that some of them even underwent trainings,” he said.
Mohammad Ilham, the Indonesian suspect, is considered a high-value target who was taken to Manila to undergo further interrogation, Marawi city police chief Supt. Ebra Moxir said.
Clashes erupted on May 23 when soldiers and policemen moved to arrest Hapilon, who was on Washington’s most-wanted terrorist list. But the security forces were confronted by a large number of gunmen composed of militants from the Maute group, backed by an undetermined number of foreign fighters, including Malaysians and Indonesians.
As fighting raged, the militants fanned across the city. They torched buildings, killed Christians and ransacked much of the once-scenic lakeside Marawi, which was reduced to rubble after five months of fighting.
More than 200,000 residents fled the city. Many have started trickling back during the past few days to find their homes destroyed. An expert who had assessed the damage earlier said that it would take about a decade to fully rehabilitate the city.
The vicious fighting, underscored by daily bombing runs from Air Force jets, stoked fears that IS might gain a foothold in Southeast Asia. As many as 942 militants, 165 soldiers and police, and 47 militants were killed during the battle, according to the military.
Displaced residents of the southern Philippine city of Marawi receive food supplies, while the military said it was still engaged in clearing the ruined city of leftover enemy combatants, Nov. 2, 2017. [Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews]
‘No open shooting in Marawi now’
In Manila, Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said more clashes were expected as the military searched for stragglers from the enemy side. However, he sought to allay fears that the fighting would spill over to other areas in the south.
“I think that’s easy to explain. It’s the nature of urban street warfare. There is no open shooting in Marawi now,” Roque said of the sporadic violence in Marawi.
“I don’t think they have the capability to engage us frontally but they may still be in hiding and that is why the military continues to exercise caution,” he said, referring to the militants. “That’s also the reason why we have not allowed civilians completely to return to the war-zone area.”
The view from Sabah
Earlier this week, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Brunei announced that they would work with Interpol to catch foreign militants trying to infiltrate their common borders. The four nations share territory on Borneo Island, which lies close to the southern Philippines.
On Thursday, Malaysia’s new police chief said security agencies were on the lookout in its eastern border with the Philippines in Sabah state for any militants who might be crossing over while fleeing from Marawi.
“Security agencies are on full alert, 24 hours [a day], in Sabah. It’s not only us, but also the military, the Eastern Sabah Security Command, and Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency,” Police Inspector-General Mohamad Fuzi Harun told BenarNews.
“We also rely on intelligence, and are in contact with our Philippines counterparts to monitor movement [towards our territory]. At the moment, we are really in control of the situation.”
But Malaysian security analyst Ahmad El-Muhammady warned that Sabah could become the next hotspot for militant activities.
“Terrorists would make Sabah their new base or transit point,” said Ahmad, a lecturer at the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM) and a counter-terrorism adviser to the police.
He said Sabah, located at the northern end of Borneo Island, was only about 30 km (19 miles) away from Tawi-Tawi, an island province in the Southern Philippines where Abu Sayyaf members operate.
“People can literally walk across the border during low tide,” he said. “You send them in the morning and in the evening they can already return. Nobody takes care of the 3,000 miles of coastline.”
Froilan Gallardo in Cagayan de Oro City and Hareez Lee in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this story.