Fresh clashes as Marawi gunmen seek new base in Mindanao

Marawi residents outside a bullet-ridden house believed to have been rented by Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute, the key figures in last year's siege on the city. They were killed by Philippine security forces in the last few days of the siege.
Marawi residents outside a bullet-ridden house believed to have been rented by Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute, the key figures in last year's siege on the city. They were killed by Philippine security forces in the last few days of the siege.

They are recruiting again in bid to build caliphate: Philippine military commander

MANILA • Months after being routed from the southern Philippine city of Marawi, militants are waging a fresh and deadly bid to set up a South-east Asian caliphate in the same region, the military warned yesterday.

The gunmen have mustered a force of about 200 fighters and fought a series of skirmishes with security forces this year after government forces retook Marawi last October, Colonel Romeo Brawner told Agence France-Presse.

"They have not abandoned their objective to create a caliphate in South-east Asia," said Col Brawner, a senior commander for a military task force that has since been protecting Marawi.

"Mindanao is the most fertile ground," he said, referring to the Philippine's southern region. "Our countrymen are more vulnerable (to recruitment)."

Struggling with widespread poverty and armed Muslim insurgencies seeking independence or self-rule, Mindanao must improve its poor supervision of Islamic schools, where most young gunmen are recruited, he added.

He said the armed forces were retooling to meet the challenge of the Maute group, which occupied Marawi over five months and has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Gunmen who escaped during the early days of the United States-backed operation to recapture Marawi are leading the recruitment effort, flush with cash, guns and jewellery looted from the city's banks and private homes, Col Brawner said.

The recruits are mostly locals, but an unspecified number of Indonesians, some with bomb-making skills, have recently arrived there, he added.

STILL A THREAT

They have not abandoned their objective to create a caliphate in South-east Asia.

COL ROMEO BRAWNER, a senior commander for a military task force that has been protecting Marawi since the end of a deadly siege on the city.

Col Brawner told reporters that the rebuilt Maute forces currently "do not as yet have the capability to launch another attack like what they did in Marawi", though he said this could change.

The siege of Marawi forced the Philippine military, more used to low-intensity jungle warfare against guerillas, to reorganise and to rewrite their doctrines, with a new emphasis on urban warfare training, he added.

Mindanao military officials said Maute gunmen murdered three traders in the town of Piagapo, near Marawi, last November. Last month, police arrested three suspects over the Piagapo killings.

The military also reported skirmishes with Maute gunmen in the towns of Masiu and Pagayawan, near Marawi last month. On Feb 8, the military killed three militants in Pantar, another neighbouring town.

The renewed fighting came after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and other political leaders in the Mindanao region warned of a potential repeat of the siege of Marawi which claimed more than 1,100 lives. Mr Duterte has imposed martial law in Mindanao until the end of the year in an effort to curb the militants' activities.

Mr Ebrahim Murad, head of the Philippines' main Muslim rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which signed a peace treaty with Manila in 2014, also warned on Tuesday that militants were recruiting and could seize another city.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 24, 2018, with the headline 'Fresh clashes as Marawi gunmen seek new base in Mindanao'. Print Edition | Subscribe