ILIGAN CITY, MINDANAO (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Abdullah Maute, one of the leaders of the home-grown terror group that launched the assault on Marawi city, is still alive and unhurt, says a prominent Muslim leader.
Agakhan Sharief, known in the province as Bin Laden because of his resemblance to the late Al-Qaeda leader, told the Inquirer on Saturday that he was able to speak with Maute on July 17.
"He is unhurt, but the military already cut off the communication signal inside the battle zone," Sharief said. He said mobile phone signal inside the war zone in southern Philippines was cut on July 18.
Sharief was able to reach Maute after he was asked to lead efforts to bring out civilians and dead bodies through a peace corridor set up with the help of the government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The Marawi assault was planned and executed by the Maute Group which had pledged allegiance to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The group, which is also known as Dawla Islamiya, wants recognition from ISIS as its regional affiliate.
Led by two brothers, the Maute Group want a "Wilayah", or province of ISIS, in Philippines' southern Lanao del Sur province, where it has engaged in several battles with the military since 2016.
The Philippines army said one of the Maute brothers, Omar Maute, had been killed in the fighting.
Both are believed to have been radicalised in the Middle East. Omar completed Islamic Studies in Egypt. Abdullah also finished his Islamic Studies in Jordan, according to intelligence reports.
Omar is believed to be the brains behind the group while Abdullah serves as the commander of its military operations, reported Rappler website.
Lawmakers over the weekend approved President Rodrigo Duterte's request to extend martial law to the end of the year on the island of Mindanao, granting greater powers to security forces to go after extremists with a reach that goes far beyond Marawi.
It remains unclear how exactly Duterte plans to tackle extremism after troops retake Marawi, one of the biggest southern city in the Philippines, where about 70 militants remain holed up along with many civilian hostages.
After missing several self-imposed deadlines to re-take the city, the military says its options are limited because of the hostages, according to a Reuters report.
More than 500 people have been killed, including 45 civilians and 105 government troops. The fighting has displaced at least 400,000 people.
Sharief said that in his conversation with Abdullah Maute, the latter did not mention the fate of Catholic priest Teresito "Chito" Suganob, the vicar general of Marawi City, who together with others was taken hostage on May 23 when the group launched the assault on Marawi.
An attempt by government troops to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, one of the world's most wanted terrorists, in Marawi had triggered the siege by the militants.
Sharief also said the Abu Sayyaf leader had managed to escape from Marawi in the last week of May.
Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Sunday (July 23) said that Maute members who would surrender to the government would be accepted and given necessary support by the state even as he stressed that soldiers will strive even harder to end the on-going crisis.
"With the overwhelming vote of confidence from our legislature and the ardent support of the Filipino people, your defense department will strive even more to deal with the rebellion decisively and expeditiously," Lorenzana said in a statement.
Lorenzana, administrator of martial law for Mindanao, said the government would help members of the Maute group who wish to reform to return to normal lives.
"But if you persist in your crooked ways, the Armed Forces and the police will come after you without let up," Lorenzana said.