Philippines Nabs 59 Suspected Enemy Reinforcements Bound for Marawi

Jeoffrey Maitem and Richel V. Umel
2017.07.28
Marawi, Philippines
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170728-PH-chopper-1000 A Philippine Air Force attack helicopter fires rockets into an area controlled by Islamic State-backed militants in Marawi, July 28, 2017.
Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews

The Philippine military said Friday it had intercepted and arrested 59 suspected Muslim militants this week, including four minors, as they were en route to reinforce Islamic State-linked fighters in the besieged city of Marawi.

One batch of 32 fighters was stopped on Tuesday at a road block near the town of Ipil, in Zamboanga del Sur province, and 27 others were subsequently arrested at a home in nearby Zamboanga City, officials said.

The suspects were held for “covert acts tending to reinforce the Maute-ISIS terrorists fighting the government in Marawi,” the military said in a statement, referring to Islamic State (IS) by another acronym.

The two areas where the arrests occurred are more than 100 km (62 miles) west of Marawi, a southern Philippine city that has been under siege since May 23. Abu Sayyaf and Maute gunmen backed by foreign fighters took it over then, capturing scores of civilian as hostages and engaging troops and police in deadly running gunbattles.

The military said the men belonged to the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a former Muslim rebel group which signed a peace deal with the government in 1996. But a faction of the MNLF led by its chairman, Nur Misuari, launched another failed rebellion in 2003 that left more than 200 people dead in Zamboanga City.

When interrogated, according to the military, the men said they were heading to an MNLF camp for training prior to being integrated into the regular armed forces – as spelled out in the peace deal.

But military officials said they were not aware of any training taking place, and the MNLF leadership later denied links to those arrested.

The suspects were flown to Manila for further questioning while charges of rebellion were being prepared.

A military spokesman said the arrested militants were unarmed but wore military uniforms.

“With Martial Law in force in entire Mindanao, we can validly restrict and effect arrests of suspicious persons and unscrupulous groups whose actions bear with the rebellion,” said Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez, the military chief in the region.

“I commend our troops on the ground for their alertness that frustrated the movement of these suspicious persons. They have just prevented these individuals from potentially compounding the operational challenges in Marawi should they succeeded in sneaking into the City,” he said.

The arrest was a “very strong signal” to any groups supporting the Islamic State that the military would counter any attack with a “strong hand,” Galvez said.

Martial law in south

The arrests come days after President Rodrigo Duterte won an extension in Congress of his edict placing the entire southern region of Mindanao under military rule for the rest of the year, citing the ongoing rebellion in Marawi.

Duterte admitted to having underestimated the enemy firepower, forcing him to ask for intelligence back-up from the United States, a long-time military ally but which he had repeatedly castigated in favor of seeking closer ties to its traditional rivals China and Russia.

Australia and Singapore also offered to fly drones, while neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to boost anti-terror cooperation with the Philippines in fear that the terrorism taking place in Marawi could spill over to their shores.

The local Abu Sayyaf and Maute fighters are believed to have received funding from the IS, and several fighters from Southeast Asia and the Middle East are said to be fighting in Marawi, a once idyllic city that has been abandoned by majority of its 200,000 or so residents.

Duterte, in his state of the union address to Congress on Monday, said there were as many 300 hostages still in rebel custody in Marawi, and that he believed the fighting could still last for months.

Artillery and air assault

On Friday, the military launched large-scale air and artillery assaults against enemy positions, and claimed that the gunmen-controlled area had fallen to just about three neighborhood blocks, or about less than one-square kilometer (0.38 square miles).

Apart from mortars and howitzer cannons, the Air Force also deployed two attack helicopters to fire rockets as well as two airplanes to drop bombs on enemy positions, including into buildings where the gunmen were known to be hiding.

“The air strikes started this morning,” Capt. Jo-ann Pentinglay said. “There were specific areas targeted which we cannot divulge.  Every day, we have different challenges, needs and situations.”

However, she said, ground troops were moving slowly and cautiously to prevent civilian hostages getting caught in the crossfire.

The advance by troops “was very slow” because they were also picking their way to an area known to have been rigged with homemade bombs, Pentinglay said.

Based on official count released in Manila on Friday, the toll has increased slightly to 471 militants, 114 soldiers and 45 civilians killed since clashes erupted on May 23. More than 1,700 civilians caught in the cross fire or held as hostages have also been freed.

Marines patrol an area formerly held by Islamic State-linked militants in the southern Philippine city of Marawi, July 2017. [Froilan Gallardo/BenarNews]

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