PNP says Malaysian ‘emir’ alive, AFP says he’s dead
The military on Monday shot down a police claim that a Malaysian militant had succeeded slain Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon as the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group’s “emir” in Southeast Asia.
In a news conference at Philippine National Police headquarters in Camp Crame, Quezon City, on Monday morning, PNP Director General Ronald dela Rosa identified the Malaysian as “drone operator” Amin Baco.
Dela Rosa presented to reporters arrested Indonesian militant Muhammad Ilham Syahputra, according to whom, he said, Baco was not only leading the remaining Maute Group and Abu Sayyaf terrorists in Marawi but also had taken over as “emir,” or leader, of IS in Southeast Asia.
Government troops killed Hapilon and Maute group leader Omar Maute in a targeted operation last month, ending the siege of Marawi that began on May 23.
Hapilon’s deputy, Malaysian militant Mahmud Ahmad, was also believed killed.
Trained by Marwan
Experts say Baco was trained under Malaysian militant Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, who was killed in 2015 in a clash in Mamasapano, Maguindanao province, that left 44 PNP Special Action Force commandos dead.
Baco was reported to have been killed in Marawi but British news agency Reuters, citing intelligence sources, reported that he had fled.
“He could be somewhere on Jolo Island or in nearby Maguindanao,” Reuters quoted an Army colonel familiar with Islamist militant groups in Mindanao as saying.
Dela Rosa said it was “possible” but “unconfirmed” that Baco had slipped out of Marawi.
But in a statement issued on Monday afternoon, Maj. Gen. Restituto Padilla Jr., spokesperson for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said Baco was believed to be among the terrorists killed in Marawi.
“Baco’s remains [are] now the subject of an ongoing aggressive search,” Padilla said.
“The AFP strongly believes that the [Maute group] is now leaderless and without direction,” he added.
Padilla maintained that only “clearing operations” were going on in Marawi to get the last IS-inspired terrorists who were “fighting for survival” and hiding “in the hope of escaping.”
Padilla was quoting information from Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr., chief of the military’s Western Mindanao Command, who in a separate interview with reporters on Monday said Baco was most likely dead.
In an interview with reporters at AFP headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana did not confirm or deny Dela Rosa’s claim but appeared to play it down.
Not force to reckon with
Lorenzana said that even if Baco was now the leader of the stragglers in Marawi, “I think he can no longer amass that number of troops that [Hapilon] can bring to Marawi.”
The defense chief declined to give an estimate of the number of stragglers left but said “they are no longer a force to reckon with because they can no longer hold the ground and sustain a fight.”
Government troops killed nine of the stragglers in a firefight on Sunday, according to Col. Romeo Brawner Jr., deputy commander of the military forces fighting the IS-inspired terrorists in Marawi.
Brawner said among those killed was Ibrahim Maute, alias Abu Jamil, a cousin of the Maute brothers who led the siege of Marawi in alliance with Hapilon’s faction of the Abu Sayyaf and a number of foreign fighters.
The deaths of the nine brought to 10 the number of stragglers killed by government troops since the military declared an end to the fighting in Marawi on Oct. 23.
Brawner said troops continued to conduct clearing and reconnaisance operations to capture or kill the remaining terrorists.
Syahputra, the arrested Indonesian militant, earlier said there were about 39 gunmen still holed up in the city. —With reports from Richel Umel, Divina suson, and the wires
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