MANILA – The government believes that the conflict in Marawi City is backed by the Islamic State (IS or ISIS), else the Maute group members could not have stayed put.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said this yesterday as he bared that government troops were still in pursuit of 250 terrorists 12 days into the firefights.
“Yes, we believe that this is ISIS. Normally…the local groups will just scamper away. This group has just holed up there, and they are willing to fight to the last,” Lorenzana said in a press briefing in Marawi City Saturday.
But Lorenzana assured the public that government troops would do their best to “contain them here (Mindanao) so they will not spread to other places.”
On Thursday, President Rodrigo Duterte said in a speech that the situation in Mindanao was “purely” the plan of the ISIS.
“Iyung rebellion sa Mindanao, it’s not Maute, it’s purely ISIS with a different branch,” Duterte said.
“Itong Marawi [siege] has long been planned. It could not be just a decision na ‘let’s go to Mindanao.’ Nung si Hapilon na ang pinadala sa central Mindanao and he was the anointed emir [of ISIS], doon na ako nakaamoy na something terribly wrong is going to happen kasi dala-dala na niya ang ISIS.”
Lorenzana said that, while authorities do not know exactly how many Maute group members were still in conflict areas, troops were looking pursuing 200 to 250 more who might be holed up in Marawi City.
“If there are that many, they can still put up a good fight, so it is giving us some difficulty clearing the area. We would not like to endanger the citizens,” he said.
ISIS, a group responsible for deadly attacks in key cities around the world, has long been known to be establishing a foothold in Asia.
Clashes between government troops and the Maute group began on May 23 as state forces attempted to arrest Isnilon Hapilon of the Abu Sayyaf group, known to be the anointed ISIS leader in Southeast Asia.
"The way we looked at how this happened, ISIS was able to get Hapilon from Basilan," Lorenzana said.
"Part of the instruction that Hapilon got was to come here to Lanao and expand his group here. That's why he was elevated to the rank of emir by the ISIS," Lorenzana said.
The Defense Secretary said it was tough for the military to bomb mosques, some of which militants have occupied.
"But, we are going to finish this as soon as possible,” he said.
The authorities earlier said the conflict in Mindanao will be resolved by this week.
The government earlier confirmed that foreign jihadists were among those slain in Marawi firefights. Those found so far were two Malaysians, two Saudis, two Indonesians, a Yemeni, and a Chechen.
Residents have also reported seeing foreign-looking men among those armed.
A total of 175 have died in the clashes, among them 120 terrorists, 36 government troops and 19 civilians.
Mindanao remains under martial law amid government's continuing pursuit of the terrorists.