MANILA, July 5, (RTRS): Philippine security forces arrested on Wednesday the main financier and logistics supporter of the pro-Islamic State militants who have for weeks been battling government troops for control of a southern town, the army said.
The militants from a faction known as the Maute group, seized the town or Marawi on May 23 and are resisting daily assaults by government forces using aircraft and artillery, and with help from allies the United States and Australia.
The fighting in the largely Muslim town in south of the predominantly Christian Philippines has alarmed neighbours, fearful that Islamic State is bent on gaining a foothold in the region as it loses ground in the Middle East. Security forces raided a village not far from Marawi and detained three suspects found with ammunition and material for making bombs, an army spokesman, Brigadier- General Gilbert Gapay, said.
One of those detained was an important supporter of the Maute group who Gapay identified as Monaliza Romato, alias Monay. The woman is a niece of the matriarch of the Maute clan, whose men-folk lead the Marawi attack. Two of seven Maute brothers, Omar and Abdullah, were educated in the Middle East, and were the main planners of the assault on Marawi, the military has said.
“Monay has replaced her aunt as the main financier and logistic supporter of the militant group,” Gapay said in a statement. “The arrest will adversely affect the logistics support network of the group,” he said. The raid, seizure of weapons and the arrests would also prevent the militants from mounting diversionary attacks, he said.
More than 400 people have been killed in the fighting in Marawi. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced and about 20 percent of the centre of the town has been destroyed. On Wednesday, military aircraft dropped bombs on the town while ground forces tried to advance from house to house. President Rodrigo Duterte imposed martial law on Mindanao island, where Marawi is located, for 60 days when the fighting erupted and Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said there was pressure on the military to defeat the militants before it expires on July 23. That is also a day before Duterte is due to deliver his annual state of the nation address in Congress.
Lorenzana said the military last week sent an aircraft to the United States to stock up on various bombs and rockets, supplies of which were running out. US forces are providing Philippine troops with technical assistance for the battle while Australia has sent two surveillance planes. In another part of Mindanao, soldiers on Tuesday found the beheaded bodies of two Vietnamese sailors abducted a year ago by militants from the Abu Sayyaf group.
Meanwhile, Duterte was preparing to make a deal with Islamic State-inspired militants in the days after they laid siege to a southern city, but aborted the plan without explanation, an intermediary involved in the process said. Agakhan Sharief, a prominent Muslim leader, told Reuters that after a band of Islamist fighters overran parts of Marawi City on May 23 and took hundreds of people hostage, he was approached by a senior Duterte aide to use his connections with the Maute militant group’s leaders to start back-channel talks.
Two other Marawi sources familiar with the matter confirmed the president had worked behind the scenes to hold talks with the Maute brothers, Omarkhayam and Abdullah. However, the process was halted when Duterte in a May 31 speech declared he “will not talk to terrorists”. It was not immediately clear what prompted Duterte’s about-face.
“The problem with our president, his mind is changing always,” said Sharief, a cleric who has had roles in various peace agreements on the long-restive southern island of Mindanao. “He announced he will no longer talk to terrorists and that made our negotiations cut.” Duterte’s top peace adviser and his spokesman did not respond to separate requests for comment.
Despite his tough rhetoric and frequent promises to wipe out militants, Duterte has a reputation as a peace-broker, having dealt with separatist and Marxist rebellions during his 22 years as mayor of Davao City in Mindanao, an island of 22 million with a long history of unrest. The battle for control of Marawi has been the biggest crisis of Duterte’s year-old presidency.
Fighters from the Maute group and others loyal to Islamic State have been holed up in the commercial district of the town through more than 40 days of air strikes, artillery bombardments and fierce street clashes with troops.
More than 400 people have been killed, including 337 militants, 85 members of the security forces, and 44 civilians. Some 260,000 residents have been displaced by a siege that has fanned regional fears that Islamic State is trying to establish a stronghold in Southeast Asia.
Marawi Mayor Majul Usman Gandamra confirmed that back-channel talks did start but said he was not privy to details. He told Reuters the process failed because the rebels did not show good faith or reduce the intensity of attacks on government forces after Duterte offered them an olive branch. “There was a window of opportunity,” he said. “But there was no show of sincerity.” Sharief, known locally as “Bin Laden” due to his resemblance to the late al Qaeda leader, would not reveal the identity of Duterte’s aide, whom he said was confidentially assigned to set up a meeting with the Maute clan.