DAVAO CITY - Foreign Muslim militants, including some from Singapore, are involved in the days-long clashes in a key city in the southern Philippine island group of Mindanao, the military said on Friday (May 26).
"There are... Malaysians, Singaporeans… in the fight that has been ongoing in Marawi. We are continuously verifying that there have been a number of them who have been killed," Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla said at a news briefing here.
In response to media queries on the general's declaration that Singaporean foreign fighters were present in Marawi, Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said in a statement that a Singaporean, Muhamad Ali Abdul Rahiman @ Muawiya, who has been in south Philippines since the 1990s, has been implicated in terrorism-related activities there.
However, the MHA said there is no information as to whether he is involved in the armed insurgency in Marawi.
"We will continue to work with the Philippines authorities to identify any Singaporean who may be involved in terrorism-related activities in the Philippines. We take a serious view of anyone who supports, promotes, undertakes or makes preparations to undertake armed violence regardless of where the violence takes place," the statement said.
About a hundred militants seized large parts of Marawi, a mainly Muslim city of over 200,000, some 814km south of the capital Manila, on Tuesday (May 23), after security forces raided a suspected hideout of Isnilon Hapilon, named by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as its top man in South-east Asia.
An army brigade, backed by helicopter gunships and armoured vehicles, has been sent to dislodge them, but as of Friday morning, they remained holed up in parts of Marawi.
The crisis in Marawi forced President Rodrigo Duterte to place the whole of Mindanao under martial rule.
Asked at Friday's briefing about the presence of foreign fighters in Marawi, Solicitor-General Jose Calida said: "Malaysians, Indonesians, from Singapore, and other foreign jihadists… And that's bothersome.
"Before, it was just a local terrorist group. But now, there is now an ideology. They have subscribed to the ideology of ISIS. They have pledged allegiance to the flag of ISIS. They want to create Mindanao as part of the caliphate.
"What's happening in Mindanao is no longer a rebellion of Filipino citizens. It has transmogrified into an invasion by foreign terrorists who heeded the clarion call of the ISIS to go to the Philippines, if they find difficulty in going to Iraq or Syria," added Mr Calida, as he explained why Mr Duterte had to declare martial law.
Brig-Gen Padilla reported that at least 31 militants have been killed in Marawi so far. Twelve have been identified, and six of these were foreigners, he added.
He said, however, that the names of those killed had yet to be validated.
"This is for validation. I do know there are some Indonesians and Malaysians (among those killed). But specifically, for the others, we don't know yet. The information we have is initial. We are still validating," he said.
The only Singaporean known to have joined Islamic extremists in the Philippines was Abdullah Ali, alias Muawiyah, who was believed to have gone to Mindanao with Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir.
Brig-Gen Padilla insisted that the siege in Marawi has been ISIS-inspired, but that the Islamic group is not orchestrating it, despite the presence of foreign fighters.
"The groups trying to ally with (ISIS) are feverishly trying to comply with requirements that have been set for them to be validly a part (of ISIS), which they have not been able to. This is the reason why many of these activities of violence, radicalism and extremism have been aimed precisely at that aspect," he told reporters.