Marawi: One of America’s most wanted terrorists may have escaped a five-week battle with Islamist militants in a southern Philippine city, which began with a raid to capture him.
Isnilon Hapilon, a veteran Filipino militant said to be the leader of the Islamic State (IS) group in South-East Asia, has not been seen in the battle zone in Marawi City, said Lt-Gen Carlito Galvez, head of the military’s Western Mindanao Command.
An attempt by government troops to arrest Hapilon in Marawi on May 23 triggered a rampage by militants flying black IS flags who seized parts of the mainly Muslim city.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in Marawi and the entire southern region of Mindanao, unleashing an offensive to crush what he said was an attempt by the extremist group to establish a province in the area.
“He (Hapilon) has not been seen in the area. We have some reports that he was already able to slip somewhere but as of now we are still confirming the reports,” Lt-Gen Galvez said in an interview with DZBB radio station yesterday.
Asked if Hapilon was on the run, he said: “Yes, yes because reportedly he suffered a lot of casualties. Majority of his group, more than half, were casualties.”
Hapilon was indicted in Washington for his involvement in the 2001 kidnapping of three Americans in the Philippines, and has a US$5mil (RM21.5mil) bounty on his head from the US government, which has his name on its “most wanted” terror list.
He leads a faction of the Philippine militant group Abu Sayyaf that has pledged allegiance to IS.
Security analysts say he has been recognised by IS as its “amir”, or leader, in South-East Asia, a region where the group wants to establish a caliphate.
The military says Hapilon’s group had joined forces with the Maute Group to launch the Marawi siege, now in its second month.
Yesterday, security forces continued intense air raids and artillery fire on pockets of Marawi still occupied by the militants, while troops fought house-to-house gunbattles on the ground.
“The operation is going on, the firefights are intense. We have gained substantial ground,” said Lt-Gen Galvez.
Nearly 300 militants and 67 government troops have been killed in the fighting, according to official figures. — AFP