1,200 IS operatives in PH, says Indonesia
SINGAPORE—There are about 1,200 operatives of the Islamic State (IS) group in the Philippines, including foreigners of whom 40 are from Indonesia, the Indonesian defense minister told an international security forum on Sunday.
Speaking in Singapore amid a bloody standoff between Philippine troops and IS-linked fighters in Marawi City, Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu called the Islamist gunmen “killing machines” and urged full-scale regional cooperation against them.
“I was advised last night, 1,200 Isis (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) in the Philippines, around 40 from Indonesia,” Ryamizard told the Shangri-La Dialogue, using another name for the IS group.
Philippine Defense Undersecretary Ricardo David Jr., speaking at the same forum, said the figure of 1,200 IS fighters in the Philippines reported by Indonesia was new to him.
“I really don’t know, my figure is about 250-400, a lot less,” David told reporters covering the conference that was attended by defense ministers and experts from 39 countries.
In Manila, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana was asked about Ryamizard’s report. ‘’No confirmation,’’ he replied.
Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla, spokesperson for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said the military also had no such information.
The threat of heightened terrorism, including the impending return of hundreds of Southeast Asian fighters who fought with IS in Syria and Iraq, has been a hot-button issue at the three-day Singapore summit, which was also attended by US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Hundreds of Islamist gunmen rampaged through Marawi, a largely Muslim city of 200,000 in Central Mindanao, on May 23 after the government attempted to arrest their leader, Isnilon Hapilon.
Up to 50 gunmen still control the city center nearly two weeks after the start of fighting that has killed about 180 people, including 120 militants.
“How can we tackle these foreign fighters? We have to be comprehensive,” said Ryamizard, a retired general.
“We have to find … complete ways but we must exercise caution, they are killing machines. Their aim is to kill other people so that’s why it’s our responsibility that we have common understanding, consensus and common proceedings on how to fight these foreign fighters,” he added.
David confirmed the 40 foreign IS fighters were among those who seized parts of Marawi, eight of whom have been killed by government forces. Earlier, Philippine officials said the slain foreign fighters were from Malaysia, Indonesia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Chechnya.
“They have a back-channel corridor in our country, probably in the area of Sulu Sea and Celebes Sea, [through which] they can proceed to Mindanao and link with the terrorist units in the area,” said the Philippine defense undersecretary.
“That’s why they were able to muster the operations in the area of Marawi,” David added.
Larger regional effort
Security officials at the forum said on Sunday that joint patrols by three Southeast Asian countries in the Sulu Sea might be the start of a larger regional effort to keep Islamist militants at bay.
The patrols will be conducted by forces from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, starting with sea operations this month, and air and land patrols starting at a later date.
The initiative in the Sulu Sea, an area bounded by the Malaysian state of Sabah and Mindanao, is a “collective agreement that is followed by the operational level,” Ryamizard said. It will feature joint command posts and exercises between the trio’s ground forces.
The so-called joint peace patrols are an attempt “to prevent and protect our border, to close the border so that militants don’t go to other areas,” Ryamizard said.
“If the situation escalates and extends to other waters, we would like to request other countries to join,” he added.
The patrols will not fall under the umbrella of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), of which Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are part.
“Asean is not a military bloc. It is a defense corporation. If there are any issues, we have to find commonalities” out of the organization, Ryamizard said.
Still, the objectives are aligned.
“The very threat we face is a common enemy. Terrorists are the enemy. Especially in Asean, we don’t have any differences. I believe this can be a framework for other countries like the Middle East,” he added.
Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said that he had offered assistance in the form of an information-sharing center at Changi Naval Base. —REPORTS FROM AFP, AP AND PHILIP C. TUBEZA IN MANILA
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