A senior Muslim militant leader of a group fighting the Philippine military in the southern city of Marawi was yesterday reported to have been killed as the battle, now into its fifth week, raged in the city.
Lieutenant-Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera, spokesman for Task Force Marawi, told reporters yesterday it had validated information on the death of Omarkhayam Maute, who, with his brother, Abdullah, formed the group that provided the bulk of gunmen who stormed Marawi city on Mindanao island.
Maute's body has not been recovered. But if confirmed, his death would be a blow to efforts by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group to gain a firm foothold in the war-torn Philippine island of Mindanao. Maute was well-educated and steeped in extremist Islamist ideas, which made him effective at recruiting converts.
The intense fighting in Marawi has alarmed South-east Asian governments, which fear the militants could fan out across the region. In response, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have launched joint patrols to control the movement of militants across their sea borders.
Yesterday, The Associated Press (AP) reported that Malaysia's most wanted terrorist had also been killed in the fighting.
The AP quoted Philippines military chief General Eduardo Ano as saying Mahmud Ahmad, 41, who helped lead and finance the assault on Marawi a month ago, was wounded in fighting last month and died on June 7.
But late yesterday, Malaysia's police chief, Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar, said the report was untrue, without saying how he knew this.
"Mahmud is still alive and fighting in Marawi," he said just after returning from a security meeting in the Philippines.
Mahmud is suspected of channelling more than 30 million pesos (S$829,000) from ISIS to acquire firearms, food and other supplies for the Marawi assault, Gen Ano said, citing intelligence shared by foreign counterparts.
Malaysian counter-terrorism authorities said the money was wired via a popular remittance service.
They refused to say where the money came from or who received it in the Philippines.
Intelligence reports said he recruited dozens of Malaysians who were among about 500 Muslim militants who stormed Marawi on May 23 in an attempt to turn the city into an ISIS "province".
Further raising concern in the Philippines and regionally, another militant group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (Biff), staged a surprise raid earlier this week on a village 190km south of Marawi, underscoring the challenge of reining in the spread of Islamic militants in the southern Philippines.
Brigadier-General Gilbert Gapay, deputy commander of the Eastern Mindanao Command, said yesterday the Maute group may have formed a "tactical alliance" with Biff, which is also linked to ISIS.
He said the military has monitored militant operations where the Biff sent men to help not just the Maute group, but also other local militant groups in the country.