The involvement of 10 Indonesians and a Singaporean — dubbed foreign jihadists by Philippine authorities — with the outlawed Maute terror movement has confirmed suspicion of collaboration among militants from the three countries.
“Intelligence from ground operatives disclosed 28 Malaysians arrived in Marawi early last week for a religious event. We suspect there must be more who arrived separately,” a Manila-based intelligence official told Sunday Mail.
“Initially, nobody knew what happened to them ... but after the deaths of two Malaysians in firefights with the armed forces, we can conclude they too took up arms.”
There are also those from the Middle East in Marawi City or on the outskirts, the official said.
There has been a close affinity between Maute fighters with Indonesian militants in the past.
“One of their founding leaders Omar Khayam is married to a woman from Indonesia, whom he met while he was studying in Egypt,” he said.
Yesterday, the air force launched strikes targeting members of Maute and Abu Sayyaf who had taken up sniper positions on city rooftops to thwart ground troops from advancing.
“The precision attacks saw no civilians killed,” the official said.
There were four homes targeted and one of those destroyed was that of the Del Sur elected representative Jun Papadayan.
“The airstrikes was to stop the terrorist rampage, which could have led to a high death toll,” he said.
As the battle for Marawi City — one of the biggest Muslim cities in the Philippines — enters its sixth day, authorities said those killed include 41 militants (with 31 body count), 13 soldiers and two police officers.
Forty-five other military personnel were wounded and there has been no sign of any Singaporean among the fatality or casualty list.
“We are monitoring chat over the Internet and other channels which are IS related,” the nofficial said.
Clashes between Philippine forces and terrorists erupted on Tuesday as authorities tried to arrest Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, reputedly the IS leader in South-east Asia.
He was seeking refuge in Marawi, and known to spearhead kidnap-for-ransom between the east coastline of Sabah and Jolo, off Mindanao.
The US has placed a US$5 million (RM23 million) bounty for Hapilon’s capture who they described to be the world’s most dangerous terrorist.
Tuesday’s operation turned bloody and President Rodrigo Duterte imposed martial law across the southern region of Mindanao, hours after IS-loyalists went on a shooting rampage in city streets, in response to the raid on the IS-safe house for Hapilon.
As Marawi, with 90 per cent of its 200,000 residents on the run, slowly turns into a ghost town, ground forces are now uncovering bodies — some booby-trapped with explosives — strewn on streets and abandoned buildings.
“Ground forces reported a discovery of nine bodies in a church,” the official said.
Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein announced all three corps of the Armed Forces have stepped up surveillance with additional assets placed at borders in the wake of security threats which took place in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.
“Emphasis has been placed in Sabah and its coastline, with additional sea patrols added,” he said in a statement.
The islands off Sabah’s east coast will also see additional surveillance which will come under the armed forces Quick Response Force, and additional infantry deployed to Cenderawasih, Lahad Datu.
“I have spoken to my counterparts Delfin Negrillo Lorenzana (Philippines), Prawit Wongsuwan (Thailand) and Ryamizard Ryacudu (Indonesia). They have kept me abreast with the situation in their countries.
“We will work together to further strengthen border security and intelligence gathering.”
By Tony Emmanuel