The Philippine military yesterday said some of the ultra-radical Muslims who seized parts of the southern city of Marawi nearly four weeks ago might have already slipped into two nearby cities.
Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla told a news briefing that some of the militants could have mingled with evacuees and fled to Iligan and Cagayan de Oro, cities about two to three hours away from Marawi.
"There are heightened security measures enforced in Iligan and Cagayan de Oro to check and watch closely any possible movements of suspicious persons," he told reporters.
But he dismissed reports that as many as 300 of the Marawi fighters had slipped past army and police checkpoints and were already in Iligan.
"It's hard not to notice 300. If there were 300, we would've noticed that and acted on it right away," he said.
He added that there was no imminent danger of an attack on Iligan and Cagayan de Oro, both much bigger than Marawi. Iligan has a population of 300,000, while Cagayan de Oro has about 600,000. Marawi was home to roughly 200,000 before the fighting forced nearly all of them to flee.
Brig-Gen Padilla said: "Safe to say that (the militants) don't have the capacity to do what they did in Marawi any more. Their capabilities have been significantly degraded. They have specifically targeted Marawi, to sow terror, wreak havoc, kidnap people, destroy homes, schools, what have you.
"That's exactly what they did. Any kind of action of that extent will not happen in Iligan and Cagayan de Oro."
About 500 militants from the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups stormed Marawi on May 23 in what security officials said was a grand plan to turn the area, a centre of Islam in the Philippines, into a "province" of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria terrorist group.
Security forces have managed to retake much of Marawi, but the insurgents have been able to hold on to four districts where they have been able to roll back ground assaults with anti-tank weapons, machine guns and sniper rifles, and hide from bombing runs inside buildings, mosques and fortified tunnels.
Brig-Gen Padilla said there are about 200 militants still holed up and fighting government troops in Marawi.
Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano, meanwhile, said the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia would convene a counter-terrorism meeting next week.
"We will be talking about enhanced cooperation… and how Asean can play a more major role in preventing the spillover from Iraq and Syria," he told reporters.
He said the goal was to rally behind a "group effort or an inter- country effort rather than each country fending off extremism by themselves".