Dozens of Islamic militants have attempted to disguise themselves as police and soldiers to sneak past military checkpoints to reinforce gunmen who have been holed up in the southern Philippine city of Marawi for weeks.
The capture of 59 suspected militants and the discovery of the same number of illegally obtained uniforms outside the Philippines’ largest Muslim city have further stoked fears the siege is attracting more extremists to the region as it drags on.
Drugs, weapons from seized from extremists in Marawi
The Philippine military said it had recovered 410 firearms and several pieces of equipment during ongoing operations against Islamic State-linked militants inside the besieged city of Marawi on Tuesday.
Military analysts say it also shows that Islamic State-linked groups behind the siege are far better organised and financed than at first thought.
A Philippine military spokesman told reporters that 32 suspected militants were arrested at a military check-point in Ipil town while 27 others were taken at a house in Zamboanga City.
Both Ipil and Zamboanga are on Mindanao, the country’s main southern island that is home to 20 million people, where Australia and other western governments are warning their citizens not to travel.
“They (the troops) have just prevented these individuals from potentially compounding the operational challenges in Marawi should they have succeeded in sneaking into the city,” the military said in a statement.
Some of the militants were travelling in Toyota four wheel-drive vehicles, which have been seized.
The suspects have been flown under heavy guard to the Department of Justice in Manila, where they denied they were infiltrators.
A soldier walking past a mosque in Marawi, southern Philippines. Photo: Getty
Philippine military commanders suspect other militants have managed to enter Marawi since hundreds of gunmen swept through the city on May 22.
They have been surprised by the resilience of the gunmen to hold-off air and ground attacks, while appearing to have no shortage of weapons, explosives and sophisticated equipment, including military radio scanners and even drones.
Police watch 59 men, suspected to be en route to reinforce Marawi militants, as they arrive at the Department of Justice in Manila, Philippines. Photo: AP
The military statement praised local governments and residents for identifying the infiltrators.
The fighting has so far claimed more than 630 lives, including 114 troops, 45 civilians and 471 civilians.
Armed police keep watch as men suspected of being Marawi militants arrive at the Department of Justice in Manila, Philippines. Photo: AP
The military says there are now only about 60 militants holding about 300 hostages in a fighting zone which has been reduced to about one square kilometre.
Rooftop snipers pick-off Philippine troops while the militants have booby-trapped buildings.
Men suspected to be Islamist militants raise their zip-tied hands, as they arrive at the Department of Justice in Manila> Photo: AP
The city of 300,000 has been largely destroyed.
Social workers fear the ability of the militants to hold back thousands of Philippine troops, backed by US special forces, has turned them into heroes for many young Muslim Filipinos.
The Philippine Sports Commission last week held sports games for children in Iligan City, near Marawi, where tens of thousands of families displaced from the besieged city are living in evacuation centres.
“Most…Filipino children consider other people heroes – sports heroes, military heroes. But here – we don’t have research, this is not scientific, but it was written by our coaches when we had our children’s games for peace that some, if not many, of these displaced children….they consider Islamic State-inspired fighters their heroes. Wow!,” commission chair William Ramirez told reporters.
The Institute for Policy Analysis and Study warned in a report that Marawi “has inspired young extremists from around the region who want to join.”
Australia’s Attorney-General George Brandis warned Islamic State’s desire to establish a “regional caliphate” was of “great concern,” as Australia and Indonesia prepared to host a meeting of six countries to respond to the terror threat this weekend.
But Malaysia wants the Philippines to attend a wider meeting of defence ministers from the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), to brief them on the situation in the southern Philippines.
“What is happening in Marawi must be shared because there is the possibility that there are member countries which think the issue does not affect the security of their country,” said Malaysia’s defence minister Hishamuddin Hussein.
Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has extended martial law across Mindanao until December 31, giving security forces war-like powers.
Australia’s smartraveller.gov.au website advises Australians to reconsider their need travel to eastern Mindanao and against travelling to western Mindanao, including Marawi and nearby towns.
“The deterioration in security in Mindanao has resulted in a more volatile security environment in the Philippines,” the advisory said.
Australia has sent two RAAF P3 Orion surveillance aircraft to perform missions over Marawi for Philippine ground troops.
But Canberra has offered to do more, including looking at training Filipino soldiers in urban warfare tactics.