One of Asia’s most-wanted militants is still hiding out in a city in the southern Philippines where government forces backed by armoured vehicles and helicopters are battling gunmen linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group, the country’s military chief said Friday.
The city of Marawi, home to some 200,000 people, has been under siege by militants since a government raid Tuesday night on a suspected hideout of Isnilon Hapilon, who is on Washington’s list of most-wanted terrorists.
“Right now, he is still inside [the city],” Gen. Eduardo Ano told The Associated Press. “We cannot just pinpoint the particular spot.”
He said militants are trying to find a way to extricate Hapilon.
44 dead so far
At least 44 people have died in the fighting, including 31 militants and 11 soldiers, officials said Thursday. The violence has forced thousands of people to flee and raised fears of growing extremism in the country.
It was not immediately clear whether civilians were among the dead.
President Rodrigo Duterte has imposed 60 days of martial law on the island of Mindanao, a traditional homeland of minority Muslims that encompasses the southern third of the nation and is home to 22 million people.
In a sign that the long-standing problem of militancy in the south could be expanding, Solicitor General Jose Calida said foreigners were fighting alongside the gunmen in Marawi, including Indonesians and Malaysians.
Confusion amid violence
Ano also said foreign fighters were believed to be inside, but he was more cautious. “We suspect that but we’re still validating,” he said.
In a sign of the confusion over events inside the city, a local police chief told The Associated Press on Friday that he was fine — two days after Duterte told journalists the police chief had been beheaded by militants.