Isnilon Hapilon, the Philippines' most wanted terrorist, may have already slipped out of Marawi, even as officials said they hope to break the weeks-long siege by Muslim militants of this city by next Monday, when the nation marks its 119th year of independence.
Hapilon, named by the ultra-radical Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as head of its South-east Asia wing, had already fled Marawi days ago, said a military source who declined to be named because he was not authorised to disclose information to the public.
Government troops had discovered a "big network of tunnels" beneath the city that the insurgents were using to move around, Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, the military spokesman, told reporters yesterday.
Hapilon could have been spirited out of Marawi through these tunnels, the military source said.
However, Brig-Gen Padilla said Hapilon was still in Marawi, citing a report from Major-General Rolando Bautista, who is leading security forces battling insurgents under the ISIS-linked Maute group in Marawi.
Maj-Gen Bautista said on Thursday: "We have to see the evidence. We have to see visually that Isnilon Hapilon is out, or he's dead. We still have to see the body."
According to him, Hapilon remains holed up with about 100 of his fighters in a section of Marawi that is small but with several fortified buildings.
Manila asks Facebook to shut accounts linked to militants
MANILA • The Philippine military yesterday asked Facebook to close dozens of accounts linked to Islamist militants who attacked a southern city, saying they were being used for propaganda.
Military spokesman Jo-ar Herrera said the armed forces' social media unit uncovered 63 Facebook accounts belonging to the fighters and their supporters. "These 63 accounts are spreading malicious information and misinformation that affect the information landscape and the mindset of every Filipino," Lieutenant-Colonel Herrera said at a news conference in the southern city of Marawi.
The military has asked Facebook Philippines "to conduct necessary measures to take down these fake accounts", he added.
Hundreds of militants waving the black flag of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group rampaged through Marawi on May 23 and seized parts of the city. They have so far fended off more than two weeks of air and ground assaults by government forces.
A video obtained by the Associated Press showed Hapilon, with other top militants, including Abdullah Maute, recently plotting to take over Marawi and proclaim it an ISIS "province".
The military had said he was wounded in a January air strike. In the video, however, there were no indications that he was injured.
Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, meanwhile, met yesterday with his Philippine counterpart, Mr Delfin Lorenzana, in Mindanao "to express Malaysia's support for the Philippine government in its current efforts to combat the militant group in Marawi".
Some 500 militants seized large parts of Marawi on May 23, after a botched raid on a suspected hideout of Hapilon in the heart of the city. At least 138 insurgents, 42 soldiers and three policemen have been killed in clashes since then.
A 15-year-old boy was reported yesterday to have been killed when a stray bullet hit him in the head as he was praying in a mosque.
Brig-Gen Padilla said he sees the "liberation" of Marawi by next Monday, when the Philippines celebrates its 119th year of independence. "Our soldiers are continuing with this effort on the ground to facilitate the liberation of Marawi, hopefully by Monday," he said.
By that, he meant "when every armed element in the city is gone".
He said General Eduardo Ano, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, had ordered that by Monday, "we can freely wave our flags in every corner of Marawi", the second time the military had set a deadline to clear the city.