MARAWI CITY, Philippines - At the beginning of the battle that has raged for the past 12 days in Marawi City at the southern end of the Philippines, dozens of Islamist militants stormed its prison, overwhelming the guards.
"They said 'surrender the Christians'," said Faridah P. Ali, an assistant director of the regional prison authority. "We only had one Christian staff member so we put him with the inmates so he wouldn't be noticed,” he said.
Fighters from the Maute group, which has pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS), menaced the guards and shouted at prisoners: but no one gave up the Christian man. "When they freed the inmates, he got free," said Ali.
It was a brief moment of cheer, but over the next few hours the militants took control of most of the city, attacked the police station and stole weapons and ammunition, and set up roadblocks and positioned snipers on buildings at key approaches. The assault has already led to the death of almost 180 people and the vast majority of Marawi's population of about 200,000 has fled.
The seizing of the city by Maute and its allies on the island of Mindanao is the biggest warning yet that the Islamic State is building a base in Southeast Asia and bringing the brutal tactics seen in Iraq and Syria in recent years to the region.
Defense and other government officials from within the region told Reuters evidence is mounting that this was a sophisticated plot to bring forces from different groups who support the Islamic State together to take control of Marawi.
The presence of foreigners - intelligence sources say the fighters have included militants from as far away as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Chechnya and Morocco - alongside locals in Marawi, has particularly alarmed security officials.
For some time, governments in Southeast Asia have been worried about what happens when battle-hardened Islamic State fighters from their countries return home as the group loses ground in the Middle East, and now they have added concerns about the region becoming a magnet for foreign jihadis.
"If we do nothing, they get a foothold in this region," said Hishammuddin Hussein, the defense minister of neighboring Malaysia.
Defense and military officials in the Philippines said that all four of the country’s pro-Islamic State groups sent fighters to Marawi with the intention of establishing the city as a Southeast Asian ‘wilayat’ – or governorate - for the radical group.
Mindanao - roiled for decades by Islamic separatists, communist rebels, and warlords – was fertile ground for Islamic State's ideology to take root. This is the one region in this largely Catholic country to have a significant Muslim minority and Marawi itself is predominantly Muslim.
It is difficult for governments to prevent militants from getting to Mindanao from countries like Malaysia and Indonesia through waters that have often been lawless and plagued by pirates.
The Combating Terrorism Center, a West Point, New York-based think tank, said in a report this week that Islamic State is leveraging militant groups in Southeast Asia to solidify and expand its presence in the region. The key will be how well it manages relations with the region’s jihadi old guard, CTC said.
The Maute group's attack is the biggest challenge faced by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte since coming to power last June. He has declared martial law in Mindanao, which is his political base.
His defense forces were caught off guard by the assault and have had difficulty in regaining control of the city - on Saturday they were still struggling to wipe out pockets of resistance.
On Monday, Brigadier-General Nixon Fortes, the commander of the army brigade in Marawi, was sacked.
An army spokesman said this was unrelated to the battle. But a military source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters on Friday that Fortes was dismissed because not all his forces were in the city when the rebels began their rampage, even though military intelligence had indicated that Islamist militants were amassing there.
The assault came just months after security forces attacked the mountain lair of Isnilon Hapilon, a long-time leader of Abu Sayyaf, or "Father of the Sword", a notorious Islamist militant group known for kidnapping. He swore allegiance to Islamic State in 2014, and quickly got other groups to join him. Most important among them was the Maute group, run by brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute from a well-known family in Marawi. In a video that surfaced last June, a Syria-based leader of the group urged followers in the region to join Hapilon if they could not travel to the Middle East. Hapilon was named IS leader in Southeast Asia last year. The Philippines military said Hapilon was likely wounded in the raids but managed to escape to Marawi, where he joined up with the Maute group. According to a statement on a social media group used by Maute fighters, the group wants to cleanse Marawi of Christians, Shi’ite Muslims, and polytheists – who believe in more than one God. It also wants to ban betting, karaoke and so-called “relationship dating.”
Some officials said Philippines security forces became complacent about the threat from IS after the January raids.
"We did not notice they have slipped into Marawi because we are focusing on their mountain lairs," Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters.
Over the past few months, Philippine and Indonesian intelligence sources said, Hapilon's forces were swelled by foreign fighters and new recruits within Marawi. Many of the outsiders came to Marawi using the cover of an Islamic prayer festival in the city last month, said Philippines military spokesman Lt. Col. Jo-Ar Herrera.
Lorenzana said that Hapilon brought 50-100 fighters to join Maute's 250-300 men, while two other groups, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Ansar Al-Khilafah Philippines, together brought at least 40 militants with them.
On May 23, four days before the start of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, they launched their attack when Philippine forces made an abortive attempt to capture Hapilon inside Marawi.
After the military retreated in the face of a phalanx of armed guards, about 400 militants quickly fanned out across the city, riding trucks mounted with 50-caliber machine guns and armed with rocket-propelled grenades and high-powered rifles.
Within hours, they attacked the jail and nearby police station, seizing weapons and ammunition, according to accounts from residents.
The Dansalan College, a Protestant institution, and the Catholic Cathedral of Maria Auxiliadora, were both razed, and a priest and about a dozen other parishioners captured. They remain hostages.
A Shi'ite mosque was also destroyed, and a statue of Jose Rizal, the Philippines hero of the uprising against Spanish rule, was beheaded.
Snipers on rooftops
Herrera said the attack had the hallmarks of a professional military operation. "There was a huge, grand plan to seize the whole of Marawi," he said. After the initial battle, IS flags flew across the city and masked fighters roamed the streets proclaiming Marawi was theirs, using loud-hailers to urge residents to join them and handing out weapons to those who took up the offer, according to residents. The military brought in helicopters to fire rockets at militant positions as ground troops began to retake key bridges and buildings, though some residents this has also led to the deaths of civilians.
"ISIS people were running on the street, running away from them. They were bombing them in the street (but) it hit our house and the mosque. Many other houses too," said Amerah Dagalangit, a pregnant 29-year-old in an evacuation center near Marawi.
"Many people died when the bomb exploded," she said, adding that a Muslim priest and children were among the victims.
Military officials said they had not received any report of the incident. Reuters could not independently verify the account.
The military has said 20 civilians have been killed in the fighting and that all were at the hands of the militants. It also says 120 rebels and 38 members of the security forces have been killed, including 10 soldiers who died from friendly fire in an airstrike.
‘People will get killed’
Officials in neighboring Indonesia worry that even if the Filipinos successfully take back Marawi in coming days, the threat will still remain high.
“We worry they will come over here,” said one Indonesian counter-terrorism official, noting that Mindanao wasn’t very far from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
More than 2,000 people remain trapped in the center of Marawi, with no electricity and little food and water. Some are pinned down by the crossfire between the military and the militants, while others fear they will be intercepted by the militants as they flee, according to residents.
The bodies of eight laborers who had been shot in the head were found in a ravine outside Marawi last Sunday. The police said they had been stopped by the militants while escaping the city.
There will most likely be more civilian casualties in retaking the city, the military said.
"We are expecting that people will get starved, people will get hurt, people will get killed," said Herrera, the military spokesman. "In these types of operations, you can't get 100 per cent no collateral damage." — Reuters
The war in Marawi City rudely interrupted the vacations of Alaina Macabato and Salma Abdulla, Muslims and natives of Marawi who teach at the Madrasah Education Program in a public school in Cebu City.
It cut short a phone conversation between Pfc. Kevin Sisiban and his 94-year-old grandfather in Cotabato City, their last.
It cost Somaya Palao and her family P8,000 for a normally two-hour trip from Marawi to Iligan City that took eight hours.
Their stories were now among countless emerging from the siege of Marawi by Islamic State followers and the ongoing operation by the armed forces to finish them off.
Macabato and Palao went to Marawi to celebrate Ramadan there when the terrorists struck. They are now among 62 people who were rescued in Marawi and brought to Cebu City from Iligan City.
It was the call of duty that brought Sisiban, an Army soldier, to Marawi where he became one of the casualties of “friendly fire.”
On the day of her return to Cebu City, Macabato sat quietly at the back of a city-owned bus that ferried the 62 evacuees from the city port where a ship brought them from Iligan.
“It is only now that we feel safe,” said the 24-year-old teacher at the Zapatera Elementary School in Cebu City.
Macabato recalled the day the terrorists, belonging to Abu Sayyaf and Maute Group, struck in Marawi City.
The teacher and a female friend were at the public market to buy fish and vegetables on May 23 when they heard people talk about fighting between the terrorists and soldiers in the Marawi village of Basak Malutlut.
Macabato shrugged off the news, thinking the fighting would not reach the village of Naga, where the market was located.
As Macabato and her friend checked out clothes being sold at the market, they heard gunfire which meant the terrorists had come to Naga, just minutes from her home in the village of Mapandi.
Macabato wanted to go home immediately but was told it was not safe because the terrorists were already in the area.
“Luckily, there was a woman who lived nearby and allowed us to stay in her house until it was safe to leave,” she said.
Macabato left the Good Samaritan’s home in the afternoon but found no ride to flee. She ran to her house instead.
As she got inside her house in Mapandi, terrorists clad in all black clothes passed by.
“Good thing that we locked our house immediately,” she said.
The next day, Macabato and her family fled their home in Mapandi to the town of Balo-i in Lanao del Norte.
Macabato and her family walked from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. as no transportation was available anymore.
They had only the clothes they were wearing, bringing nothing as they thought the war would not last long.
Another teacher, Abdulla, was also trapped in Marawi where she had also planned to spend her vacation for Ramadan.
Palao, 47 and a native of Boganga village in Marawi, was in the same bus as Macabato and Abdulla that took them to Cebu City.
Ancestral home gone
Teary-eyed after disembarking from the ship that brought them out of Iligan, Palao said it was the first time in days that she felt safe.
Palao, her 9-month-old grandson, six children and five grandchildren had wanted to vacation in Marawi.
Recalling her ordeal in Marawi drove Palao to tears. She grieved for an ancestral house damaged by air strikes.
“It is sad to see what has happened to our city,” she said, finding time to narrate her ordeal while waiting for a vessel to Catbalogan where she runs a store.
Sisiban had been hit in the errant air strike that killed 11 soldiers but gathered enough strength to call his grandfather Primitivo in Cotabato City.
“I’ve been hit” were Kevin’s words during the phone call, his last to the 94-year-old Primitivo who raised the soldier.—MICHELLE JOY L. PADAYHAG, NICO ALCONABA, RICHEL V. UMEL AND JULIE S. ALIPALA
By: Jeannette I. Andrade - Reporter / @jiandradeINQPhilippine Daily Inquirer / 03:39 PM June 03, 2017
Senate President Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III called on trade secretary Ramon Lopez to ensure that only legitimate traders are part of business delegations brought along by President Rodrigo Duterte to foreign trips.
Pimentel stressed that prospective foreign investors should not only be protected from corruption but also from fraud and deceit.
In a statement, the senate president urged the DTI secretary to “accredit only honest-to-goodness Philippine businesses in the delegations abroad” of Mr. Duterte considering the foreign trips are intended both to corner big ticket investments and forge closer relations.
Pimentel was referring to Mr. Duterte’s assurance to potential investors from Russia that there would be no corruption in their dealings with his administration.
Lopez and the business delegation as well as other government officials stayed behind in Moscow when the President had to rush back to the Philippines because of the situation in Marawi City.
The visit to Russia resulted in the signing of ten agreements, including those on defense cooperation, tourism promotions, agricultural enhancement, transportation technology, international film and art festivals, trade and investments, and on industry development.
Pimentel said that Mr. Duterte has vowed to pursue a drug-free country and a corrupt-free government and even offered to personally take care of complaints aired by foreign businessmen in their dealings here.
“We should also provide them with a fraud-free investment experience in the country,” he stressed.
Apart from securing deals in Russia, Mr. Duterte’s past visits has resulted in US$15-billion pledge for infrastructure from the Chinese government and a US$3-billion credit facility from the Bank of China. Japan also offered US$ 8.1-billion worth of loans and private investments.