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6 foreign fighters killed in Marawi

MARAWI – Foreigners are among Islamist gunmen battling security forces here, the government said yesterday, as the reported death toll from four days of clashes climbed to 46.

President Duterte imposed Martial Law across Mindanao Tuesday, hours after gunmen loyal to the Islamic State rampaged through this city in response to a raid on one of their safe houses.

“What is happening in Mindanao is no longer a rebellion of Filipino citizens. It has transmogrified into an invasion by foreign fighters,’’ Solicitor General Jose Calida said in Davao City.

He said Malaysians, Indonesians, Singaporeans, and “other foreign jihadists’’ were fighting in Marawi, one of the biggest Muslim cities in the mainly Catholic country with about 200,000 residents.

Armed Forces spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said six foreign fighters are believed to have been killed in the Marawi fighting, including Malaysians, Indonesians, and another nationality which he did not specify.

Calida said these foreign fighters had heeded a “clarion call’’ of the IS to travel to Mindanao to put up a “wilayat’’ or IS province, if they could not go to fight in Iraq or Syria.

Padilla said 11 soldiers, two policemen, and 31 militants had been confirmed killed in the fighting, which has involved the military bombing buildings where the militants have been hiding.

Two civilians were also killed inside a hospital that the gunmen had occupied on Tuesday, and the military was investigating reports that nine people had been murdered at a checkpoint the militants had set up, authorities said.

Meanwhile, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Eduardo Año said yesterday that Isnilon Hapilon, one of Asia’s most wanted militants, is still hiding here.

“Right now, he is still inside (the city),” Año said. “We cannot just pinpoint the particular spot.”

He said militants are trying to find a way to extricate Hapilon.

Año also said foreign fighters were believed to be inside, but he was more cautious. “We suspect that but we’re still validating,” he said.

In a sign of the confusion over events inside this city, a local police chief said yesterday that he was fine – two days after Duterte said he had been beheaded by militants.

Romeo Enriquez said there may have been confusion because his predecessor in Malabang, Lanao del Sur, a town near Marawi, was killed in the fighting Tuesday, although he was not beheaded.

The fighting erupted on Tuesday after security forces raided a house where they believed Hapilon, a leader of the infamous Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom group and Philippine head of IS, was hiding.

The United States regards Hapilon as one of the world’s most dangerous terrorists, offering a bounty of $5 million for his capture.

The raid went spectacularly wrong as dozens of gunmen emerged to repel the security forces, then went on a rampage across the city while flying black IS flags.

Authorities said ending the crisis was proving extremely hard because the militants were moving nimbly through homes, had planted bombs in the streets, and were holding hostages.

They said militants had also occupied higher ground in the city, enabling them to slow down or stop assaults from the security forces.

Hapilon is an Arabic-speaking Islamic preacher known for his expertise in commando assaults. He is at the nexus of several militant groups that are trying to merge into a more powerful force.

Hapilon pledged allegiance to the IS in 2014. He also heads an alliance that includes at least 10 smaller militant groups, including the Maute Group, which have a heavy presence in Marawi and were instrumental in fighting off government forces in this week’s battles.

All these groups are inspired by the IS, but so far there is no sign of significant, material ties.

“We have not seen any concrete evidence of material support from IS,” Padilla said. But he added that the smaller groups “are working to really get that recognition and funds, of course.”
(With reports from Francis T. Wakefield and Genalyn D. Kabiling) (AFP,AP)