MARAWI (Philippines) • Two top terror leaders involved in planning the offensive on Marawi may have already fled the city, officials from the Philippines and Malaysia say.
Veteran Filipino militant Isnilon Hapilon, said to be the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in South-east Asia, has not been seen in Marawi's battle zone, said Lieutenant-General Carlito Galvez, head of the Philippine military's Western Mindanao Command.
An attempt by government troops to arrest Hapilon in the city on May 23 triggered a rampage by militants flying black ISIS flags.
"We have some reports that (Hapilon) was able to slip (away)," Lt-Gen Galvez told DZBB radio station last Saturday.
Asked if Hapilon was on the run, he said: "Yes, yes because reportedly he suffered a lot of casualties. Majority of his group, more than half, were casualties."
Hapilon was indicted in Washington for his involvement in the 2001 kidnapping of three Americans in the Philippines, and has a US$5 million (S$7 million) bounty on his head from the US government, which has his name on its "most wanted" terror list.
He leads a faction of the Philippine militant group Abu Sayyaf that has pledged allegiance to ISIS.
Meanwhile, Malaysia's Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar yesterday said former university lecturer-turned-militant Mahmud Ahmad is believed to have escaped with Hapilon.
"We cannot confirm this but authorities there report that Isnilon Hapilon managed to escape and we believe Mahmud is with him," he said, refuting earlier reports that Mahmud was dead.
"Our friends in the Philippines are telling us that he is still alive," said Tan Sri Khalid.
Mahmud is known to have recruited Malaysians to fight with ISIS, and is believed to have been designated as Hapilon's successor.
Mahmud trained at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan under Osama bin Laden while studying at Pakistan's Islamabad Islamic University in the late 1990s. He then returned to Malaysia to lecture at Universiti Malaya.
After being exposed as an extremist by Malaysian police in 2014, he fled to the Philippines.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK