REGIONAL intelligence has revealed there are over 1,200 Islamic State (IS) fighters currently fighting in the Philippines, a number that far outstrips the government’s own estimate of 250 to 400.
Indonesia’s Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, who revealed this on Sunday during the Shangri-La Dialogue Security Summit, said he would relay the data to his counterparts in the region.
“I was advised last night, 1,200 ISIS in the Philippines, around 40 from Indonesia,” he was quoted saying in an AFP report (via Channel News Asia).
According to Rappler, the number “surprised” Undersecretary for Defence Policy Ricardo David of the Philippine Department of National Defence.
David, said the report, claimed 40 was the total number of foreign fighters believed to have joined the IS-linked Maute group responsible for the ongoing unrest in Marawi City, Mindanao – the number doesn’t refer to the Indonesians alone.
“We need to cooperate,” he told the Philippine daily. “This is new to me.”
He said the Philippine government’s estimates of the total number of IS militants now in the country were “a lot less”.
“My figure is 250 to 400,” he was quoted saying.
Recent fears the IS terror network has turned to Southeast Asia, specifically the Philippines, as its new terror hub reignited when fighting broke out between Maute militants and local troops in the largely Muslim Marawi City last month.
The clashes started on May 23 when Philippine forces staged a raid to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, a wanted leader of the Maute group, following tip-offs on his hideout.
Martial law has since been declared in the Mindanao province and thousands of villagers evacuated, but the fighting rages on, with more than 50 gunmen said to still be in control of the city centre. Reports say over 120 militants have died so far, along with some 38 government troops. Indonesian and Malaysian fighters are also among those killed.
“How can we tackle these foreign fighters? We have to be comprehensive,” Ryamizard, a retired general, said in the AFP report.
“We have to find … complete ways but we must exercise caution, they are killing machines. Their aim is to kill other people, so that’s why it’s our responsibility that we have common understanding, consensus and common proceedings on how to fight these foreign fighters.”
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte when speaking to reporters on Saturday had said he was confident the fighting would end within three days.
“I will not hesitate to use every power available.”
“I can end this war in 24 hours,” he reportedly said. “All I have to do is to bomb the whole place and level it to the ground.”
Meanwhile, on Sunday, a four-hour humanitarian ceasefire was marred by gunfire. Only 134 civilians were successfully rescued, leaving at least 2,000 others still trapped in the besieged city.