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Terrror Suspect Hiding Out in Marawi   05/26 05:54

   ILIGAN, Philippines (AP) -- One of Asia's most-wanted militants is still 
hiding out in a city in the southern Philippines where government forces backed 
by armored vehicles and helicopters are battling gunmen linked to the Islamic 
State 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."

   Gunmen are trying to find a way to extricate Hapilon, who suffered a stroke 
after a government airstrike wounded him in January, Ano said. But soldiers 
have been going house-to-house to clear the city of militants.

   "We will make this their cemetery," he said, estimating that the operation 
could take about a week. "We have to finish this."

   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.

   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 AP on Friday that he was fine --- two days after Duterte told 
journalists the police chief had been beheaded by militants.

   Police Chief Romeo Enriquez said there may have been confusion because his 
predecessor in Malabang, a town near Marawi, was killed in the fighting on 
Tuesday, although he was not beheaded. Enriquez has been in the job for about 
two months.

   The man at the center of the Marawi violence is Hapilon, an Arabic-speaking 
Islamic preacher known for his expertise in commando assaults. He is at the 
nexus of several militant groups that are trying to merge into a more powerful 
force.

   Hapilon, who is a commander of the Abu Sayyaf militant group, pledged 
allegiance to the Islamic State group in 2014. He also heads an alliance that 
includes at least 10 smaller militant groups, including the Maute, which have a 
heavy presence in Marawi and were instrumental in fighting off government 
forces in this week's battles.

   All these groups are inspired by the Islamic State group, but so far there 
is no sign of significant, material ties.

   "We have not seen any concrete evidence of material support from IS," 
military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said Thursday. But he added 
that the smaller groups "are working to really get that recognition and funds, 
of course."

   Washington has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to 
Hapilon's capture, but he has proved elusive.

   The army raided what it believed to be his hideout on Tuesday night in 
Marawi, but the militants called in reinforcements and were able to overpower 
government forces. Once again, Hapilon escaped. The military said it believes 
Hapilon was still in Marawi.

   Much of Marawi remains a no-go zone, but disturbing details have emerged.

   Militants forced their way into the Marawi Cathedral and seized a Catholic 
priest, 10 worshippers and three church workers, according to the city's 
bishop, Edwin de la Pena. The black flags of the Islamic State group were 
planted atop buildings and flown from commandeered vehicles, including a 
government ambulance and an armored car, said Mamintal Alonto Adiong Jr., vice 
governor of Lanao del Sur province, of which Marawi is the capital.

   More than half of the population of Marawi has cleared out, Adiong said.

   The southern Philippines has been troubled by decades-long Muslim separatist 
uprisings in the predominantly Catholic nation.

   Duterte had repeatedly threatened to place the region under martial law, 
which allows him to use the armed forces to carry out arrests, searches and 
detentions more rapidly. But there are fears the expanded powers could further 
embolden a leader who already has been accused of allowing extrajudicial 
killings of thousands of people in his crackdown on illegal drugs.


(KA)

 
 
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