MARAWI CITY, Philippines – Some residents of this Mindanao city rescued by government forces from a month-long siege by extremists said the Maute Group had forced them and other civilians trapped in the fighting to “work” for them.
This, besides being used as human shields each time State forces close in on some of the heavily fortified homes where the terrorists had taken positions since the May 23 fighting broke out, prompting President Duterte to declare a 60-day martial law in Mindanao.
Many young males were also conscripted to serve as foot soldiers of the Maute Group that has been seeking full recognition from the Islamic State, according to some of the civilians rescued during the 8-hour “humanitarian pause” declared Sunday by the Armed Forces of the Philippines in deference to Eid’l Fitr.
Soldiers from the Army’s 1st Infantry Battalion rushed to rescue a woman in black, a man wearing striped shirt and carrying a child, in one of several such missions carried out Sunday.
This particular family (their identities are not being revealed to protect them) came from the war zone in Barangay Raja Saduc.
They had been trapped in the fighting that began when hundreds of Maute Group members laid siege to the city to prevent government forces from taking Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, who had struck an alliance with the Maute brothers and had been tagged the ISIS’ “emir” for Southeast Asia.
On Sunday, the dash for freedom came, as the Army and the Office of the Presidential Adviser for the Peace Process, with some help from the Moro islamic Liberation Front (MILF), set about the hard task of rescuing civilians still trapped in the city heavily damaged by air strikes and fierce fighting.
This particular family that News5 spoke to were immediately given food as they arrived at the safe zone. They said they were inside one of the houses with members of the Maute Group.
“Sama sama kami sa mga rebelde, tapos pag may makita kami sundalo ini-snipe namin. Saka bombahin. Palagi naka bomba plane, halos nadadamay na mga bahay [We were with the militants, and were instructed to snipe at soldiers if we spotted them. Many homes have been damaged by the aerial bombardments].”
The woman said the Maute Group used her for household chores like cooking for them. They wanted to take her along, but she refused, saying she had a family.
“Gusto ng Maute isama ako, pero ayoko dahil may mga anak ako, kawawa naman. Kaya mga binata na lang ang isinama [The Mautes wanted to take me with them but I said, please pity my children, I can’t just leave them. so they took along mostly young men].”.
The young men were given arms, she said, adding that the leader of that particular Maute unit, a man named “Ali,” wanted to take all of them with him.
In one radio interview earlier Sunday, military officials also said some of the young males were being forced to wear the Maute Group’s black uniform, in order to confuse the government troops, and to prepare molotov cocktails to throw at the soldiers.
Civilians debriefed, probed
The military and police continue their rigorous debriefing of civilians rescued from the war zone, amid reports that some extremists have been blending with them and using them as cover.
The authorities also want to determine who are Maute sympathizers and who were just coerced into doing work for the militants.
The past week, the Joint Task Force-Marawi had kept saying the Maute Group is desperate and members are passing themselves off as civilians in order to exit the conflict zone.
The JTF-Marawi also continued to validate reports Sunday that Hapilon had left Marawi, further throwing the Maute Group into disarray.
Lt. Col. Jo-ar Herrera, JTF-Marawi spokesman, said, “I cannot provide details related to his escape; some reports have come out to that effect . The troops on the ground have not heard about him, and there’s information he has left the conflict area. But we continue to validate that.”
He said government forces are still getting information that Omar Maute, one of the two co-founders of the group, is still in the war zone.
There are also reports of conflict brewing among the militants. “Yes, we received information that the leaders are now fighting because of the issue of money; the issue of logistical support and leadership. There’s been a lot of betrayal. It was Isnilon who started the cracks in the leadership,” Herrera said of the ASG leader who managed to control the Mautes.