MANILA – Less than 40 Islamist extremists remain in the main battle zone in Marawi, down from the hundreds of fighters who laid siege to the Islamic city almost three months ago, the military said Monday.
The military has been surprised by the ability of the terrorists, led by the Maute and Abu Sayaf groups, to endure a prolonged battle in Marawi, with hostages who managed to escape from the battle zone saying their captors still have ample supply of food and ammunition.
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesperson Brigadier General Restituto Padilla Jr. said, even though the number of terrorists in the battle zone continues to dwindle, they can still inflict considerable harm.
“Sa ground commander’s estimate, less than 40 na lang sila. So between 20 to 40 na lang siguro ‘yan. So the force is getting smaller,” Padilla said in a news conference in Malacañang.
“Their capacity to inflict harm by the way is still there because they still have arms, they still have adequate ammunition and they still continue to hold hostages. So, that’s the compounding factor,” he added.
More details about the remaining terrorists in Marawi emerged after four of their hostages managed to escape.
The hostages said they fled in the middle of the night—while their captors were sleeping—and swam through Lanao Lake for about a kilometer until they were spotted by Navy patrol.
The hostages said they were held captive by the Maute group for more than two months inside Bato Mosque, and served as cooks for the terrorists and other hostages.
They also said that Fr. Chito Suganob, a Catholic priest captured by the terrorists, was still alive and was tasked to collect gunpowder that could be be used by extremists for their improvised explosive devices.
HOSTAGES AS SUICIDE BOMBERS
Meanwhile, the Palace condemned the Maute group’s alleged plan to turn some of their hostages into suicide bombers, as claimed by escaped hostages.
"We have been receiving accounts from hostages who were able to escape from the Maute rebels in Marawi that the enemies would be using hostages as suicide bombers once they were cornered by government troops,” Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said.
"We strongly denounce these desperate actions which apparently are carefully calculated to create violent reaction from the general populace in order to create tension between ethnic groups, which the terrorist groups expect to work in favor of their cause.”
Abella said the government will continue to abide by the rules of engagement to ensure the safety of hostages, particularly women and children.
"No less than the Commander-in-Chief has given this primordial consideration and guidance to our troops,” he said.
The Philippine Star quoted the escaped hostages as saying that there were still about 46 hostages, including 20 women and 13 minors, held by the group at the site where they came from.
The presence of hostages in the terrorist strongholds has been considered as the main stumbling block in government efforts to conclude the siege.
The long-drawn crisis in Marawi, once a bustling commercial and cultural hub, has driven out more than 400,000 residents from the city and surrounding areas.
MANIFESTO VS TERRORISTS
Meanwhile, Padilla said the military welcomes the decision of Lanao del Sur local government units to issue a manifesto condemning the Maute group and their cohorts.
The military also welcomes the decision of Ulamas, Muslim leaders trained in Islamic law, to issue a “fatwa” which will condemn the acts of the Islamic State-inspired terrorists.
“We are looking forward to seeing those within the week and we see this as a very positive step towards inoculating Marawi and building it back better against violent extremism and radicalism” Padilla said.
“If we see this happening within the week, we can guarantee you that it will be part and parcel of the holistic approach we are looking at Marawi to rebuild it back much better than before.”
The battle in Marawi has been raging since May 23, when Islamic State-inspired militants captured parts of the once-vibrant Islamic city. It has left nearly at least 735 dead, mostly terrorists.
The violent clashes prompted Duterte to place the entire Mindanao under martial law, saying the local terrorists were aiming to establish an Islamic State province in the Philippines.
The emergence of groups pledging allegiance to Islamic State is now considered the biggest security problem to face the year-old Duterte administration.
The rise of pro-Islamic State groups in the country has also raised alarm in Washington and the Philippines’ neighbors in the region, which fear that the terror group was seeking to establish a new front in Asia following its successive losses in Iraq and Syria.