MARAWI CITY, Philippines, June 22, (Agencies): Islamist militants holed up in a southern Philippines town have been cornered and their firepower is flagging, the military said on Thursday, as the five-week battle for control of Marawi City raged on. Despite signs that the insurgents are now on the back foot, Southeast Asian governments are worried that the siege could be just the prelude to further violence as the ultra-radical Islamic State group tries to establish a foothold in their region. Jolted by the May 23 attack on Marawi, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have launched joint patrols to control the movement of militants across their archipelagic region and their foreign ministers gathered in Manila on Thursday for talks.
Malaysia is worried that militants who are flushed out of Marawi City by the fighting may try to cross from the Philippines to its eastern state of Sabah. “We fear that they may enter the country disguised as illegal immigrants or foreign fishermen,” said Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) chief Wan Abdul Bari Wan Abdul Khalid, according to state news agency Bernama. It said Esscom had drawn up a “wanted” list that included two militants who spearheaded the attempt to capture Marawi.
They are Abu Sayyaf group leader Isnilon Hapilon, who was proclaimed by Islamic State last year as its “emir” of Southeast Asia, and Abdullah Maute, whose followers accounted for a large number of the estimated 400-500 fighters who overran part of the town, killing Christians and taking dozens of civilians hostage. The fighting in Marawi broke out on May 23.
Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera said on Thursday the number of militants holding out in Marawi had dwindled to “a little over 100”. Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Tampus said: “Their area has been reduced to 1 km square only.” Tampus’ troops are blocking escape routes across bridges spanning a river to the west of the militants. “Our forces are coming from the east and the north and we are blocking the three bridges,” he said.
The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia plan to closely cooperate to halt the flow of militants, weapons, funds and extremist propaganda across their borders as they expressed alarm over recent attacks in their region. Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano and his Indonesian and Malaysian counterparts gathered in Manila with top security officials Thursday to discuss a joint plan of action amid a disastrous siege of southern Marawi city by militants aligned with the Islamic State group that has left about 369 combatants and civilians dead.
As the IS loses territory in Syria and Iraq, Southeast Asian governments worry that battle-hardened Asian fighters, including those from Indonesia and Malaysia, may return to exploit social restiveness, weak law enforcement, a surfeit of illegal arms and raging insurgencies to establish a foothold. Many worry that the monthlong siege in Marawi could draw in the returning jihadis.
“We expect that those who will be displaced there will go to Asia and because of the Marawi uprising, the Philippines is like a magnet,” said Philippine military chief of staff Gen Eduardo Ano, who took part in the closed-door security conference. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi condemned the attack in Marawi and said her government was ready to help. “Your challenges are Indonesia’s challenges and your challenges are also the challenges of the region,” she said in her opening speech, adding that the threat of terrorism is imminent and that “no action is not an option.” A draft of a joint statement to be released after the meeting, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, expressed “concern over the recent incidents of terrorism and violent extremism in their countries” and their desire to plot joint strategies to combat it.
Meanwhile, trapped in a war zone, Carmalia Baunto’s husband, Nixon, had been trying for weeks to stay alive as Islamist guerrillas and Philippine government forces battled for control of Marawi City. With the fighting raging around him, Nixon texted and called throughout, until just over a week ago when the messages stopped abruptly, leaving his wife praying that it was just his cellphone battery that had died. “I’m OK, but I can’t go out. The house is safe,” the 41-year-old hardware store owner had told his wife in a message from their home inside the southern Philippines city.
He heard gunbattles in the street, he wrote, and hid from black-clad fighters who have pledged allegiance to Islamic State and have occupied the city’s commercial district for a month. On June 14, at 9:59 am, Nixon texted to ask Carmalia to buy him more credit for his phone, which she did. Then the messages stopped, and his phone stopped ringing. “I’ve had sleepless nights since then,” Carmalia, 42, told Reuters at Marawi’s government compound, where she has been sleeping in a mosque while awaiting word of her husband. The couple and their children were out of town when fighting erupted in Marawi on May 23, but Nixon went in the next day to check on their home and got trapped.
Like most of the city’s residents, the family is Muslim. Officials estimate 300 to 500 people are still trapped inside Marawi, fearful of militants accused of using civilians as human shields as much as of government airstrikes and starvation. Some families have sent messages saying they have resorted to eating blankets or cardboard dipped in water to keep hunger at bay.
The Philippine military has said it is in the final stages of its operation to oust the insurgents, whose ranks contain local militants and foreign, battle-hardened fighters from Islamic State’s campaigns in Syria and Iraq. The fighters have put up tough resistance, exploiting the city’s narrow streets, thick concrete walls and basements, and harassing troops with sniper fire and Molotov cocktails.