Is Hapilon still in Marawi City?
One of America’s most wanted terrorists may have escaped a five-week battle with Islamic State (IS)-inspired terrorists in Marawi City, which began with a raid to capture him last month, the military said on Saturday.
Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, a veteran Filipino fighter said to be the leader of the IS group in Southeast Asia, has not been seen in the battle zone in Marawi City, said Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez, head of the military’s Western Mindanao Command.
An attempt by government troops to arrest Hapilon on May 23 triggered a rampage by Islamist fighters flying black IS flags and backed by Asian and Middle Eastern fighters who seized parts of the mainly Muslim city of Marawi.
President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in the entire region of Mindanao, unleashing an offensive to crush what he said was an attempt by the terrorist group to establish an Islamic province in the area.
“He (Hapilon) has not been seen in the area. We have some reports that he was already able to slip somewhere but as of now we are still confirming the reports,” Galvez said in an interview with dzBB radio station.
Asked if Hapilon was on the run, he said: “Yes, yes because reportedly he suffered a lot of casualties. Majority of his group, more than half, were casualties.”
Galvez’s statement appeared to contradict earlier military reports, which said Hapilon was still in the area.
The military on Friday also said top Malaysian IS leader, Mahmud bin Ahmad, was reported killed in the fighting, as well as Omarkhayam Maute. But their deaths could not be independently confirmed, with Malaysian security officials casting doubt on the reports.
Hapilon was indicted in Washington for his involvement in the 2001 kidnapping of three Americans in the Philippines, and has a $5-million bounty on his head from the US government, which has his name on its “most wanted” terror list.
He leads a faction of the militant group Abu Sayyaf that has pledged allegiance to IS. On top of the US bounty, Manila has also offered P10 million for his capture as well as half a million pesos each for the arrest of brothers Omarkhayam and Abdullah Maute.
Security analysts say Hapilon has been recognized by IS as its “emir,” or leader, in Southeast Asia, a region where the group wants to establish a caliphate.
The military says Hapilon’s group had joined forces with the Maute Group, to launch the Marawi siege, now on its second month.
Galvez said there are “strong indications” that two or three of the Maute brothers among the key players in the siege had been killed, including Omarkhayam, believed to be the group’s top leader.
Only Abdullah has been visible in the fighting, Galvez added.
Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella in Manila said the military is “validating an intelligence report” that Mahmud, who helped lead and finance the Marawi siege, died from wounds he had sustained in the early days of the fighting.
When asked about Mahmud’s reported death, Malaysia’s Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar told Agence France-Presse (AFP) in a text message in Kuala Lumpur: “Not true. He is still alive.”
Abella said authorities were also verifying another intelligence report that 89 foreign fighters are in Mindanao, entering the region through the Philippines’ porous maritime borders with Malaysia and Indonesia.
“They might have entered the Philippines via the backdoor where the point of entry is Mindanao via Indonesia or Malaysia,” Abella said. “This is the purpose why we are making a collective effort against terrorism and violent extremism through a trilateral cooperation with Indonesia and Malaysia,” he added.
Foreign ministers of the three countries held a meeting in Manila on Thursday and agreed to coordinate more closely to combat cross-border flows of weapons, fighters and finances supporting terrorism. —With reports from Jovic Yee and AFP
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