ISLAMIC STATE’s “emir” in Southeast Asia Isnilon Hapilon no longer has the capacity to launch an attack on the scale of that in Marawi City, said a top Philippines army official on Wednesday.
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla Jr told reporters that IS affiliates were increasingly limited in their ability to strike in Mindanao after the military had “thwarted” the Maute terror group, reported the state Philippine News Agency.
These claims run counter to fears of a wider campaign across the Philippines empowered by foreign fighters and access to heavy weaponry.
Reports this week suggested that Hapilon, who heads up notorious Islamist group Abu Sayyaf and was appointed the emir of the “Philippine province” of Islamic State, had escaped from besieged Marawi.
“It was an act of cowardice if he abandoned his fellow terrorists from inside,” said Padilla. “And showing that he fled from the battle and left many more of his companions inside would not sit well and may be indicative of an infighting that is occurring among them.”
The AFP’s claim came after at least nine hostages were rescued in Marawi City on Tuesday, with around 120 people still being held captive by rebel fighters.
On Sunday, an eight-hour humanitarian ceasefire was called in respect of the Islamic Eid al-Fitr celebrations marking the end of the Ramadan fasting month. During the ceasefire, Philippine emissaries met with a leader of the Maute group to discuss the release of hostages.
The army claims that captured civilians have been forced to loot homes, take up arms against the government and serve as sex slaves for the IS-inspired militants.
At least 27 civilians and 71 government troops have died in fighting in Marawi since the siege began in late May. The AFP claims 299 Islamic militants have been killed.
President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law on the island of Mindanao until the insurgency had been effectively quashed, attracting criticism from human rights groups who fear a return to the days of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Recent intelligence suggests that the Maute group’s leadership is fracturing due to problems accessing monetary support and arms at the frontline.
Philippines military personnel, meanwhile, continue to make their way to the city. To date, some 1,700 civilians have been rescued from the fighting, which has displaced a total of 246,000 people.