FIGHTERS from the Moro National Liberation Front have been ordered to repulse any Maute terrorists seeking sanctuary in areas under their control in Lanao del Sur.
MNLF spokesman Absalon Cerveza said founding chairman Nur Misuari has ordered his men to be on the alert for any spillover from Marawi City, where government troops have been battling members of the Maute Group for almost a week.
“I already transmitted a communication to all MNLF forces in Lanao del Sur,” Cerveza told the Manila Standard in an interview.
Communist rebels, meanwhile, said they are willing to work with the government against terrorists who attack and kill civilians.
“In that sense, the CPP-NPA would be together with the Duterte government in opposing the Maute group and the Abu Sayyaf,” said Luis Jalandoni, senior adviser of the National Democratic Front.
Cerveza said there was a large concentration of MNLF fighters in the towns of Butig and Malabang, Lanao del Sur, and attempts by retreating militants to force their way into the area would lead to a dangerous situation.
Speaking to troops in Jolo, Sulu, on Saturday, President Rodrigo Duterte said he has already accepted an offer from Misuari to have MNLF fighters join the fight against the extremists.
“I will accept Nur’s offer,” Duterte said. “Nur Misuari sent me a letter. He said, ‘My men, take them’…he said, “Take my fighters in the MNLF.”
“Message from Nur Misuari: Good evening. Assalamualaikum. A truly auspicious opportunity has risen for your brothers to show their mettle in helping their beloved President and the people to restore peace in Mindanao, specifically in Marawi, which is under siege by some organized criminal groups, some of them… being drug lords,” Duterte said, quoting Misuari’s letter.
Misuari suggested that an MNLF unit composed of 500 to 700 men be formed to help government troops, and that the unit be put under the command of MNLF officers.
Duterte said he was amenable to the idea.
“I will hire you as soldiers—same pay, same privileges, and I will build houses for you in some areas,” Duterte said.
Maute group gunmen overran Marawi City Tuesday, prompting Duterte to declare martial law in Mindanao. More than 61 of the extremists have died in fighting with government troops, who have bombed their positions in the city.
The crisis in Marawi has also claimed the lives of some 27 civilians, some of them executed by the Maute terrorists. The militants also took dozens of people, including a parish priest, hostage.
Cerveza said the MNLF is carefully watching the crisis in Marawi.
He also said unconfirmed reports said some of the militants have gone to Davao province.
In a Palace press briefing, Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella said Misuari’s offer is “an example of rising above self-interest to close ranks against a brutal foreign enemy—the ISIS—which is both anti-Islam and anti-Filipino and, thirdly, anti-humanity.”
“So we appreciate that. It all depends now [on how the] AFP and the MNLF can… best operationalize the offer,” he said.
AFP spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said the President’s call reflects his earlier appeals for unity on all fronts.
“If such a mechanism is employed for the benefit of the MILF [Moro Islamic Liberation Front] once we are done with our talks, then so be it, because these are all welcome developments,” Padilla said.
In Marawi City, security forces traded heavy gunfire with Islamist militants as fears grew for up to 2,000 people unable to escape a week of fighting that has left women and children among the dead.
Sreet-to-street battles and a relentless military bombing campaign have so far failed to end the crisis in Marawi, one of the biggest Muslim cities and authorities expressed alarm about the fate of those trapped.
“They are texting us and calling us for help,” Zia Alonto Adiong, spokesman for the provincial crisis management committee, said of the 2,000 people his office had recorded being unable to leave areas held by the militants.
“They can’t leave because they are afraid of running into checkpoints put up by the gunmen.”
Authorities said the gunmen had already murdered at least 19 civilians, including women and children, while 17 members of the security forces had died in the clashes and 61 militants were killed.
Eight bodies were found on Sunday morning dumped off a bridge on the outskirts of Marawi, which is normally a bustling city of 200,000 people known as a center of Islamic culture and education.
Myrna Bandung, a Catholic woman, told reporters at a checkpoint on Monday as she accompanied one of those bodies out of the city that she had been with the eight when they were murdered.
“They did not kill me because I was able to recite a Muslim prayer. The others were not so lucky,” a visibly shocked Bandung said.
Most of the city’s residents had fled to nearby towns.
But adding to the fears for those who remained, the military announced on the weekend that it would intensify a bombing campaign on the areas being held by the militants.
When asked on Monday about fears of civilians being bombed, Padilla told reporters that airstrikes would be done with precision.
However, he said the bombings would continue in whichever areas the militants were hiding.
The violence began when dozens of gunmen went on a rampage throughout Marawi in response to an attempt by security forces to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, a veteran Filipino militant regarded as the local leader of IS.
The United States regards Hapilon as one of the world’s most dangerous terrorists and has offered a bounty of $5 million for his capture.
The gunmen on Tuesday planted black IS flags, took a priest and up to 14 other people hostage from a church, and set fire to buildings. The fate of those hostages remained unknown.
Duterte and military chiefs have said most of the militants belong to the Maute group, which has declared allegiance to IS and which the government estimates has about 260 armed followers.
Malaysia, Indonesian, Singaporean and other foreign fighters had joined them, the military said.
Padilla said Monday that some of the more than 100 inmates who had escaped a local jail during the initial rampage last week were also suspected to have joined the fighting.
He said some of those who escaped were members of the Maute group.
Duterte had previously said local criminals were also backing the Maute in Marawi.
Cooperation between Islamist militants, criminals and corrupt politicians is common across Mindanao, where a Muslim separatist rebellion has claimed more than 120,000 lives since the 1970s.
The main Muslim rebel groups have signed accords with the government aimed at forging a final peace, giving up their separatist ambitions in return for autonomy.
The Maute and other small hardline groups are not interested in negotiating and have in recent years looked to IS to help them.
Duterte said Saturday he was prepared to enforce martial law for as long as was necessary to end the terrorist threat, and even ignore constitutionally mandated safeguards such as Supreme Court and congressional oversight.
Padilla on Monday confirmed that the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters may have been aiding the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups in attempts to take control of Marawi City.
“These armed groups are helping each other,” he said.
“We are also aware that there are sympathetic elements that may have been helping and may have also joined their ranks,” he added.
Padilla said that the military had regained control of Marawi City but admitted that troops were still clearing some areas in the city.
“We have complete control of the city, by the way, contrary to what is coming out in social media and other information, perhaps some fake news. It is not true that half of the city is controlled by the rebels. Totally untrue,” Padilla said.
“Our forces are in complete control of the city, except for certain areas of the city where they continue to hold. These are the subject of clearing operations that are continuously being conducted.”
“Our ground commanders have assured [us] that the end is almost there. So, we hope to get clear results,” he added. With AFP, PNA