Australia to send spy planes to help Manila fi ght militants
MARAWI, Philippines, June 24, (Agencies): The Islamic State group helped fund the monthlong siege of a southern Philippine city through a Malaysian militant who was reportedly killed by troops, the Philippine military chief said Friday. Gen Eduardo Ano told The Associated Press that Malaysian Mahmud bin Ahmad reportedly channeled more than $600,000 from the IS group to acquire firearms, food and other supplies for the attack in Marawi.
Money believed to be from illegal drugs also funded the uprising, he said. Mahmud was wounded in the fighting last month and reportedly died on June 7, he said.
A local militant leader, Omarkhayam Maute, also is believed to have been killed in the early days of intense fighting and troops were looking for their remains to validate the intelligence the military had received. Troops are seeking the help of villagers to pinpoint the spot where Mahmud was reportedly buried, Ano said. In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar acknowledged that Mahmud was in Marawi fighting with insurgents but said he believed the militant is still alive. Malaysian authorities are trying to determine the number of Malaysians who joined the siege but said at least four may have been killed in clashes.
Two other rebel leaders, top Filipino militant suspect Isnilon Hapilon and Maute’s brother, Abdullah, were still fighting in Marawi, Ano said. A former Malaysian university professor who became radicalized and received training in Afghanistan, Mahmud appeared in a video showing militant leaders planning the Marawi siege in a hideout, a sign of his key role in the uprising. The AP obtained a copy of the video, which was seized by troops May 23.
A month ago, about 500 local militants, along with some foreign fighters, stormed into Marawi, a bastion of the Islamic faith in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation. Troops since then have killed about 280 gunmen, recovered nearly 300 assault firearms and regained control of 85 buildings. Many of the taller buildings were used as sniper posts to slow down the advance of government forces, the military said.
At least 69 soldiers and police and 26 civilians have died in the fighting. Only four villages in Marawi remain in the hands of the militants, out of the 19 of 96 villages across the lakeside city of 200,000 people that the black fl agwaving militants had occupied. “They are constricted in a very small area. They’re pinned down,” Ano said. He said three boatloads of gunmen who tried to join the militants were blasted by navy gunboats three days ago in Lake Lanao, which borders Marawi. Ano said the battle was taking longer because the militants were using civilians as human shields. “We can just bomb them away or use napalm bombs to burn everything, but then, we will not be any different from them if we do that,” he said.
The audacious attack by the heavily armed militants and their ability to hold on to large sections of a city for weeks surprised the government and sparked fears among Southeast Asian countries that the Islamic State group was moving to gain a foothold in the region. Facing his worst crisis, President Rodrigo Duterte has declared martial law in the south to deal with the Marawi siege.
Powerful clans and warlords, along with insurgencies, have effectively weakened law enforcement in large areas of the country’s south, making it easier for militants to take over an area and hold it, said Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Confl ict in Jakarta, Indonesia. “I do think that martial law doesn’t solve the problem and I think military strikes, especially airstrikes, don’t solve the problem,” Jones said. “It’s a much broader problem that needs a strategic solution.” Meanwhile, one of America’s most wanted terrorists may have escaped a five-week battle with Islamist militants in a southern Philippine city, which began with a raid to capture him, the military said Saturday.
Isnilon Hapilon, a veteran Filipino militant said to be the leader of the Islamic State (IS) group in Southeast Asia, has not been seen in the battle zone in Marawi City, said Lieutenant General Carlito Galvez, head of the military’s Western Mindanao Command. An attempt by government troops to arrest Hapilon in Marawi on May 23 triggered a rampage by Islamist militants flying black IS flags and backed by some foreign fighters who seized parts of the mainly Muslim city. “He (Hapilon) has not been seen in the area. We have some reports that he was already able to slip somewhere but as of now we are still confirming the reports,” Galvez said in an interview with DZBB radio station.
Asked if Hapilon was on the run, he said: “Yes, yes because reportedly he suffered a lot of casualties. Majority of his group, more than half, were casualties.” Hapilon was indicted in Washington for his involvement in the 2001 kidnapping of three Americans in the Philippines, and has a $5-million bounty on his head from the US government, which has his name on its “most wanted” terror list. He leads a faction of the Philippine militant group Abu Sayyaf that has pledged allegiance to IS. Security analysts say he has been recognised by IS as its “amir”, or leader, in Southeast Asia, a region where the group wants to establish a caliphate.
The military says Hapilon’s group had joined forces with another armed militancy, the Maute Group, to launch the Marawi siege, now in its second month. On Saturday, security forces continued intense air raids and artillery fire on pockets of Marawi still occupied by the militants, while troops fought houseto- house gunbattles. “We have gained substantial ground,” said Galvez, the military commander. But military spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla said he expects the fighting to continue for a while.
“These people are suicidal. Our assessment is that they will really fight to the end,” Padilla said, also on DZBB. He said the militants are seeking shelter in bunkers and tunnels built by Marawi residents to protect themselves against possible clan wars and unrest related to a Muslim insurgency in Mindanao. Nearly 300 militants and 67 government troops have been killed in the fighting, according to official figures. Galvez said there are “strong indications” that two or three of the Maute brothers — among the key players in the siege — had been killed, including Omarkhayam Maute, believed to be the group’s top leader.