AFP chief: Marawi fighting started with raid on Hapilon hideout
Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Año said the fighting in Marawi broke out when troops attacked a hideout for Muslim extremist leader Isnilon Hapilon.
The Abu Sayyaf’s Hapilon has reportedly been chosen to lead an Islamic State group branch in Southeast Asia and is on the U.S. Department of Justice list of most-wanted terrorists worldwide, with a reward of up to $5 million for his capture. An Arabic-speaking Islamic preacher known for his expertise in commando assaults, he pledged allegiance to the IS group in 2014, according to security officials.
Año said Hapilon, who is still recovering from wounds sustained in a military airstrike in January, and more than a dozen of his men summoned reinforcements from their allies in the Maute militant group. Ano said nearly 50 gunmen in all managed to enter the city.
One group of about 20 gunmen took position in a hospital, where they raised a black Islamic State group-style flag at the gate, and 10 other militants went near a provincial jail where troops and policemen engaged them in fighting, he said.
Troops sealed off major entry and exit points to prevent Hapilon from escaping, Año told The Associated Press by telephone from Moscow, where he was accompanying President Rodrigo Duterte on an official visit to Russia.
“They did some burnings, they showed up in another area so it looked chaotic, but it’s actually a small group facing an overwhelming number of government forces,” Año said.
“We will conduct house-to-house clearing and do everything to remove the threat there. We can do that easily,” Año said, but added it was more difficult in an urban setting because of the need to avoid civilian casualties.
The Maute group is one of less than a dozen new armed Muslim groups that have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group and formed a loose alliance in the southern Philippines in recent years. Hapilon was reportedly designated the leader of the alliance.
The Maute has been blamed for a bomb attack that killed 15 people in southern Davao city, Duterte’s hometown, last September and a number of attacks on government forces in Lanao, although it has faced setbacks from a series of military offensives.
Last month, troops backed by airstrikes killed dozens of Maute militants and captured their jungle camp near Lanao del Sur’s Piagapo town. Troops found homemade bombs, grenades, combat uniforms and passports of suspected Indonesian militants in the camp, the military said.
While pursuing peace talks with two large Muslim rebel groups in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation, Duterte has ordered the military to destroy smaller extremist groups which have tried to align with the Islamic State group.
Duterte had repeatedly threatened to place the south, the scene of decades-long Muslim uprisings, under martial law if terrorism spiraled out of control. Human rights groups have expressed fears that martial law powers could further embolden Duterte, whom they have accused of allowing extrajudicial killings of thousands of drug suspects in a crackdown on illegal drugs. On Tuesday, on account of the fighting in Marawi, the President imposed martial law on all of Mindanao. — AP