Philippine police bust cell backing Marawi militants

Monaliza Romato, niece of the matriarch of the Maute clan, which led militant attacks in Marawi, Philippines.
Monaliza Romato, niece of the matriarch of the Maute clan, which led militant attacks in Marawi, Philippines. PHOTO: ARMED FORCES OF THE PHILIPPINES

Philippine security forces have busted a terrorist cell of the militant group that has been battling government troops for control of the southern city of Marawi for more than a month, arresting one of the militants' financiers.

Police yesterday raided a house in Cagayan de Oro city, two hours away from Marawi, and arrested three suspects found with ammunition and material for making bombs.

Among those detained was Monaliza Romato, who reportedly replaced her aunt, Ominta Maute, as "matriarch" of the group that attacked Marawi.

Maute's sons, Abdullah and Omarkhayam, formed that group. They led about 500 militants, including dozens from abroad, who stormed Marawi on May 23 in a bid to turn the city into a "province" of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terror group.

The militants have since held off an entire army brigade, keeping their hold on a small part of Marawi's commercial district.

"(Monaliza) is providing financial and logistical support to the Maute terrorist group, and her house in Cagayan de Oro served as a sanctuary and transit point for Maute terrorist members," said Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, the military spokesman.

A fourth suspect, Irene Idris, also a Maute relative, eluded arrest. She is said to be also a financier of the terrorist group.

Chief Inspector Mardy Hortillosa, a police spokesman, said the terrorist cell was planning to bomb targets in Cagayan de Oro to divert the military's attention away from Marawi.

Security officials said yesterday that they recovered the bodies of two "foreign-looking" militants in Marawi, including one suspected to be a Singaporean. They did not speculate on the nationality of the other gunman.

"Initially they said... this could be the remains of a foreign fighter and allegedly a Singaporean," Brig-Gen Padilla said at a news briefing. "But we don't yet have enough proof to validate this information, and we are working to do that along with the police."

A senior officer with a joint task force supervising military operations in Marawi said: "We will defer further details on that pending acquisition of more data."

Two Vietnamese held hostage since last year by another ISIS-linked group, meanwhile, were found beheaded early yesterday in a remote village in Sumisip town in Basilan province.

Colonel Juvymax Uy, commander of Joint Task Force Basilan, said the bodies of Mr Hoang Trung Thong and Mr Hoang Va Hai were found at 5.40am in Tumahubong village. The two were among six crew members of the MV Royal 16, a Vietnamese cargo vessel, who were seized by the Abu Sayyaf group off Sibago Island in Basilan on Nov 11 last year.

Security forces rescued Mr Huang Vo, one of the MV Royal 16 hostages, last month.

Brig-Gen Padilla said the beheadings were an attempt by the Abu Sayyaf, which is allied with the ultra-radical ISIS, "to cover up the fact that they are a spent force".

The military last week reported that 258 Abu Sayyaf fighters had been "subdued" since January this year. Out of the total, 94 were killed, 66 were arrested and 98 surrendered, it said.