MANILA – At least eight foreign terrorists have been killed in besieged Marawi City as residents reported seeing "foreign-looking" fighters joining gunfights against state forces, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Thursday.
Lorenzana said the military has so far identified 2 Malaysians, 2 Saudis, 2 Indonesians, a Yemeni, and a Chechen as among those killed in the siege, which started Tuesday last week.
Government had earlier reported that six foreigners, among them Malaysians and Indonesians, were among terrorists slain in government operations.
“The report we got from the civilians from Marawi is they saw a lot of foreign-looking fighters,” the defense chief said.
“There could be more that we killed that we have not identified," he added.
Lorenzana said 95 terrorists have been killed in the clashes, with 33 already identified.
The defense chief said foreigners who were fighting alongside local terror groups Maute and Abu Sayyaf could have entered the country through the southern backdoor.
The participation of foreign terrorists in the Marawi fighting lends credence to long-running reports that the Islamic State was trying to establish a foothold in Asia through the Philippines as it dealt with losses in Iraq and Syria.
A Reuters report quoted a Philippine intelligence source as saying that of the 400-500 marauding fighters who overran Marawi City, as many as 40 had recently come from overseas, including from countries in the Middle East.
The source said they included Indonesians, Malaysians, at least one Pakistani, a Saudi, a Chechen, a Yemeni, an Indian, a Moroccan and one man with a Turkish passport.
Lorenzana’s revelation also confirms the research finding of security expert Rohan Gunaratna that foreign fighters were killed in the clashes.
"This indicates that foreign terrorist fighters form an unusually high component of the IS fighters and emerging IS demography in Southeast Asia," Gunaratna said.
According to an intelligence brief seen by Reuters, authorities in Jakarta believe 38 Indonesians travelled to the southern Philippines to join Islamic State-affiliated groups, and about 22 of them joined the fighting in Marawi City.
However, an Indonesian law-enforcement source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the actual number of Indonesians involved in the battle could be more than 40.
Lorenzana said about 50 to 100 militants remained holed up in Marawi City, and that efforts were now underway to flush them out, with the Philippine Marines sending up to 400 of its men to neutralize continuing resistance in the city.
“Some of them have already started to rejoin their barangays. [They are] going to their former places,” he said.
President Rodrigo Duterte on May 23 placed Mindanao under martial following the clashes.
Violence erupted in the city after government troops attempted to arrest top Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon. The terror leader, considered as the Islamic State’s point man in Southeast Asia, managed to evade arrest.
Lorenzana, however, said Hapilon remains in Marawi City. - with Reuters