Southeast Asian militants have helped Islamic State-inspired Filipino fighters in their deadly battle against Philippine government troops in the besieged southern city of Marawi, where they are holding several hostages, including a Catholic priest, officials said Friday.
The government’s solicitor-general, Jose Calida, said militants from Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore were providing back-up firepower to the local terror groups Abu Sayyaf and Maute in the fighting since Tuesday in Marawi, capital of Lanao del Sur province on Mindanao island.
Calida said the fierce gunbattle forced Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to place Mindanao under martial law.
“What’s happening in Mindanao is no longer a rebellion of Filipino citizens,” Calida said.
“It has transmogrified into invasion by foreign terrorists who heeded the clarion call of the ISIS to go to the Philippines if they find difficulty in going to Iraq or Syria,” he said, mentioning the other name of Islamic State.
Officials said that since the fighting began, 31 militants, 11 soldiers and two police officers have been killed. At least 30 soldiers have also been wounded.
Armed forces spokesman Brig. Gen. Resituto Padilla said foreign fighters were monitored to be with the Filipino fighters trying to escape from Marawi, a city of 200,000.
He said that at least six of the slain fighters were believed to be foreigners, based on documents that were recovered from them.
Brig. Gen. Padilla said there were “certain foreign elements” in the south who have been training the militants in bomb making for years.
“There are also Malaysians, Singaporean in the fight that has been ongoing in Marawi. We are continuously verifying that there have been a number of them who have been killed,” he said, adding that of the earlier casualty figures about six were “foreign terrorists.”
Duterte visited troops in the nearby city of Iligan on Friday and said he was willing to talk with the militants to stop the violence, but warned them he would be harsh if rebuffed.
Duterte said the Marawi clash indicated that the IS has established a foothold locally.
“My message mainly to the terrorists on the other side is: We can still solve this through dialogue,” he said.
Small groups of civilians remained trapped as fierce fighting transformed Marawi into a ghost town. Aid groups were trying to reach them as food and water rations were dwindling, eyewitnesses said.
“The fighting and clearing operations are going on. They (the enemy) have occupied vantage positions. … We have carried out several surgical airstrikes to neutralize the bandits,” military spokesman Lt. Col. Joar Herrera said.
He said the gunmen had split into smaller groups as they battled government forces in three villages.
Fighting was triggered when the military received reports that Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, who is listed on the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists with a $5 million bounty on his head, had been spotted in Marawi this week.
Government forces moved to arrest him, but were overwhelmed by about 100 fighters armed with high-powered weapons, officials said.
Full story: BenarNews
Mark Navales, Jeoffrey Maitem, Froilan Gallardo and Richel Umel
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