SECURITY forces in the Philippines said eight foreigners are among the remaining 40 militants still fighting in Marawi, nearly six months after the Islamic State-inspired Maute Group laid siege to the southern city.
According to Free Malaysia Today, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) did not mention the nationalities of the foreigners but Malaysian police believe four or five of its citizens were still holed up in the conflict zone.
On Sunday, AFP chief Eduardo Ano told local media that the foreign fighters had taken on leadership roles among the local militants, based on information from local residents.
Troops have reclaimed several hideouts where they discovered dozens of bodies, including those that appeared to be of foreigners. The authorities were conducting DNA test to confirm their identities.
The Malaysian embassy provided Filipino authorities with a photo of Mahmud Ahmad, a highly wanted militant, to see whether one of the bodies belonged to him. But coroners in the southern Philippines said the bodies were difficult to identify as many of them were highly injured and were decomposing.
However, security forces said the bodies belonged to fighters and not civilians as they were dressed in military gear.
“We still believe there are four to five Malaysians still fighting in Marawi,” Malaysian Inspector-General of Police Mohamad Fuzi Harun, said as quoted by the FMT.
“There were reports from the field that some of them had been killed but our Philippine counterpart has not given us confirmation of their deaths.
“So we consider them still fighting there.”
The FMT report said Mahmud, a former lecturer-turned-militant, was once trained at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, while Mohd Amin Baco and Jeknal Adil, both from the Malaysian state of Sabah, were thought to be in in Marawi.
Another two Malaysians, Muhammad Joraimee Awang Raimee and another nicknamed “Pendek”, were also said to be in the besieged city, but their status was unknown.
“Their deaths have yet to be confirmed, so we consider them still alive,” Fuzi said.
According to Reuters, more than 800 people have been killed in the battle – most of them insurgents – since May 23 when the militants occupied large parts of the predominantly Muslim town.
The southern Philippines has been marred for decades by insurgency and banditry. But the intensity of the battle in Marawi and the presence of foreign fighters fighting alongside local militants has raised concerns that the region may be becoming a Southeast Asian hub for IS as it loses ground in Iraq and Syria.
Militants from neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia, both Muslim-majority nations, are fighting in Marawi.
After failing to quash the uprising in its initial weeks, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte extended martial law on Mindanao until the end of 2017.