FILIPINO troops are zeroing in on three sons of Isnilon Hapilon, the slain “emir” of Islamic State in Southeast Asia, and two Malaysians, including Amin Baco, who has been central to facilitating the movement of foreign fighters in the region.
A top military commander said this on Saturday as troops continued a phased withdrawal from Marawi city, in the Philippines’ south.
Lieutenant-General Carlito Galvez said the men were among only 20 insurgents who remained in a small area in the devastated lakeside city, including five “significant” figures, and three battalions of troops were closing in on their positions.
“We cannot say our mission is totally accomplished or completed if the five persons are still there,” he said, adding the remaining militants are “struggling to survive” and to protect their shrinking position.
The Philippines is preparing to declare the end of fighting in a southern city seized for five months by pro-Islamic State rebels, a top military commander said on Saturday, as troops continued a phased withdrawal from the devastated lakeside city.
“Most probably tomorrow, we can do it,” Galvez told reporters when asked when the military can declare fighting is over. “We can declare it is totally complete.”
Another general told Reuters they were also looking for a prominent Indonesian militant. The military is concerned Isnilon’s sons and these foreign fighters could succeed core leaders of the alliance killed this week.
Hapilon and Omar Maute were killed by commandoes on Monday. Malaysian Mahmud Ahmad, who experts say may have funded the Marawi siege, was also dead, according to a freed hostage, but his body has yet to be found.
The Defence Ministry said on Saturday that forensic tests by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation had confirmed that the man killed was Hapilon. The United States has provided technical support to treaty ally the Philippines, including surveillance drones.
The deaths of the leaders could slow down any effort by Islamic State to establish a presence in Mindanao, a vast island with a history of rebellion and home to the predominantly Roman Catholic nation’s Muslim minority.
Malaysian militant surrender
According to Channel News Asia, Amin Baco is currently the most senior Malaysian militant alive, following the reported death of compatriot Mahmud.
A senior regional security source said Amin Baco had made contact with the Philippine military to negotiate a surrender.
“Amin Baco, a Malaysian terrorist, is now acting as the leader of 30 members of ISIS and the Maute Group who are hiding under a mosque in barangay (district) Sabala Manao in Marawi city, and is subject to the joint task force for operations of the Philippines’ military,” the source was quoted as saying.
“Amin Baco has made contact with the Joint Intel Task Group to surrender and that is now being processed.”
The source added the process of Amin Baco’s surrender was currently underway.
Highly capable rebel group
The organisation and combat capability of the rebels has stunned the military. Some experts see the siege as a prelude to a more ambitious bid by Islamic State loyalists to exploit Mindanao’s poverty and use its jungles and mountains as a base to train, recruit and launch attacks in the region.
Galvez, head of the Western Mindanao Command, inspected troops in Marawi and sent off a battalion of marines central to military operations. It was the second unit to leave the conflict area.
The military declined to divulge the number of troops remaining in Marawi. Elite commandoes were leading the assault, with army infantry battalions and police commandoes securing safe areas.
The military said eleven hostages were “processed” on Saturday to determine whether they were really captives or militant members and sympathisers trying to slip away.
Galvez said rehabilitation, including retrieval of the dead, would start after the end of hostilities is declared.
The Philippines estimates the rebuilding of areas battered by months of government air strikes could cost at least PHP50 billion (US$971 million).
Additional reporting by Reuters