ILIGAN, Philippines –One of Asia’s most-wanted militants is still hiding out in a city in the southern Philippines where government forces backed by armoured vehicles and helicopters are battling gunmen linked to the Islamic State group, the country’s military chief said Friday.
The city of Marawi, home to some 200,000 people, has been under siege by militants since a government raid Tuesday night on a suspected hideout of Isnilon Hapilon, who is on Washington’s list of most-wanted terrorists.
“Right now, he is still inside (the city),” Gen. Eduardo Ano told The Associated Press. “We cannot just pinpoint the particular spot.”
Gunmen are trying to find a way to extricate Hapilon, who suffered a stroke after a government airstrike wounded him in January, Ano said. But soldiers have been going house-to-house to clear the city of militants.
“We will make this their cemetery,” he said, estimating that the operation could take about a week. “We have to finish this.”
At least 44 people have died in the fighting, including 31 militants and 11 soldiers, officials said Thursday. The violence has forced thousands of people to flee and raised fears of growing extremism in the country.
It was not immediately clear whether civilians were among the dead.
President Rodrigo Duterte has imposed 60 days of martial law on the island of Mindanao, a traditional homeland of minority Muslims that encompasses the southern third of the nation and is home to 22 million people.
In a sign that the long-standing problem of militancy in the south could be expanding, Solicitor General Jose Calida said foreigners were fighting alongside the gunmen in Marawi, including Indonesians and Malaysians.
Ano also said foreign fighters were believed to be inside, but he was more cautious. “We suspect that but we’re still validating,” he said.
In a sign of the confusion over events inside the city, a local police chief told the AP on Friday that he was fine – two days after Duterte told journalists the police chief had been beheaded by militants.
Police Chief Romeo Enriquez said there may have been confusion because his predecessor in Malabang, a town near Marawi, was killed in the fighting on Tuesday, although he was not beheaded. Enriquez has been in the job for about two months.
The man at the centre of the Marawi violence is Hapilon, an Arabic-speaking Islamic preacher known for his expertise in commando assaults. He is at the nexus of several militant groups that are trying to merge into a more powerful force.
Hapilon, who is a commander of the Abu Sayyaf militant group, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in 2014. He also heads an alliance that includes at least 10 smaller militant groups, including the Maute, which have a heavy presence in Marawi and were instrumental in fighting off government forces in this week’s battles.
All these groups are inspired by the Islamic State group, but so far there is no sign of significant, material ties.
“We have not seen any concrete evidence of material support from IS,” military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said Thursday. But he added that the smaller groups “are working to really get that recognition and funds, of course.”
Washington has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to Hapilon’s capture, but he has proved elusive.
The army raided what it believed to be his hideout on Tuesday night in Marawi, but the militants called in reinforcements and were able to overpower government forces. Once again, Hapilon escaped. The military said it believes Hapilon was still in Marawi.
Much of Marawi remains a no-go zone, but disturbing details have emerged.
Militants forced their way into the Marawi Cathedral and seized a Catholic priest, 10 worshippers and three church workers, according to the city’s bishop, Edwin de la Pena. The black flags of the Islamic State group were planted atop buildings and flown from commandeered vehicles, including a government ambulance and an armoured car, said Mamintal Alonto Adiong Jr., vice governor of Lanao del Sur province, of which Marawi is the capital.
More than half of the population of Marawi has cleared out, Adiong said.
The southern Philippines has been troubled by decades-long Muslim separatist uprisings in the predominantly Catholic nation.
Duterte had repeatedly threatened to place the region under martial law, which allows him to use the armed forces to carry out arrests, searches and detentions more rapidly. But there are fears the expanded powers could further embolden a leader who already has been accused of allowing extrajudicial killings of thousands of people in his crackdown on illegal drugs.