Military warns against MILF splinter group; Maute leaders still in Marawi

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The Armed Forces of the Philippines believes the Maute brothers, Omar and Abdullah, are still inside Marawi City, teaming up with Abu Sayyaf-Basilan leader Isnilon Hapilon. (FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, August 7) — The military on Monday warned of efforts by splinter factions and terror groups to derail the peace process in Mindanao through attacks on government forces.

Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesperson Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said the military was closely monitoring the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) even as he downplayed the threat they posed in Maguindanao.

"They pose a threat in the area of where they are right now because they continue to attack police stations, other areas," Padilla said in the Mindanao Hour news briefing.

"In the locality where they are, they are still a threat, but not that much. So we are closely watching them," Padilla said.

The BIFF, founded in 2010, is a splinter group of the MILF, which is now negotiating peace with the government. They have been launching attacks against government forces in Maguindanao, where they are based.

Last month, the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law  was certified as urgent by President Rodrigo Duterte. The Bangsamoro law aims to establish a new region for the Bangsamoro, a collective term for Filipino Muslims, to replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao which includes Maguindanao.

The Bangsamoro law is seen as a concrete measure to establish peace after decades of conflict in Mindanao.

Threats of another siege?

Asked if there were threats looming of a Marawi-style siege, Padilla said it could not be discounted that the remnants of such groups would come together.

"Nandiyan pa rin kasi 'yung BIFF, 'yung ASG. Nandiyan pa rin ang ibang grupo ng mga local terrorist groups," he said.

"So this is not far-fetched that some of their members who are still remaining in the island of Mindanao will want to join forces again to create trouble in certain areas," Padilla added.

He reiterated government's appeal for Filipinos to remain vigilant and that the fight against terror was a "shared responsibility that must be borne by all."

"We continue to encourage everyone to please work closely with our security sector in their respective areas by being vigilant, being alert and being proactive by providing information and any kind of potential assistance that could increase the security posture of your respective communities," he added.

This was because government forces are stretched thin. He noted that the number of military and police was limited and hardly covered even 10 percent of the population. The AFP is 125,000-strong, while the Philippine National Police numbered at 175,000, Padilla said. The government is also pursuing a war against illegal drugs.

Filipinos  in Mindanao can access special "AFP text hotlines" to contact the military. The numbers were set up in cooperation with telecoms service providers. Padilla said the numbers can be used by the public to report on the presence of armed men in their area or even alleged abuses by government forces.

"Mga armadong tao, grupo na nais niyong tugunan kaagad. Or kung may nang-aabuso po na sundalo sa inyong barangay na gusto niyong maaksyunan kaagad, pwede niyo rin pong ipadala dito sa text hotline na ito para matugunan natin," he said.

[Translation: "Armed persons, groups that you wish to report. Or if there are soldiers committing abuses in your barangay that you wish us to act on, you can send these (complaints) to the text hotline so we can respond to them."]

The AFP Text Hotlines are

  • Smart : 7444-1678. Send a text to AFP, <space>, <location to be investigated>
  • Globe: 26563. Send <location>, <information to AFP>.

Maute brothers still in Marawi City

Padilla on Monday said the fighting is limited to less than one square kilometer covering two barangays, but the presence of hostages in the area were a huge consideration in military operations.

On Sunday, AFP public affairs officer Col. Edgardo Arevalo said that they believed the Maute brothers, Omar and Abdullah, are still inside Marawi City, along with Abu Sayyaf-Basilan leader Isnilon Hapilon, who joined forces with them.

"'Iyan ang ating primary objective, 'yung ma-neutralize natin sila," Arevalo said in a news briefing.  "Hindi lang siguro yung tatlo, but all other leaders of this terror group... even kung meron pang natitira na mga foreign terrorists na kasama nila," he added.

[Translation: That's our primary objective, to neutralize them...Not just the three...including any remaining foreign terrorists that are with them."]

Destroying a terror group's capabilities or capturing leaders "will deal a heavy blow" to their goal of setting up an Islamic caliphate in southeast Asia, he said but added that other programs to counter radicalism are in place apart from combat operations.

"Neutralization of the terrorist leaders will deal a heavy blow on such means to attain their ends of establishing a wilayat in this part of Asia. This is the reason why we have programs and activities to counter violent extremism and radicalism apart from combat operations targeting terrorists leaders," he said.

President Rodrigo Duterte, in a meeting with senate and lower house leaders on August 1, warned of other threats apart from the Maute group. The Maute group launched a siege in Marawi City on May 23, which continues to this day, as government closes in on dozens of fighters.

Read more: Duterte bares new ISIS threat in Mindanao; 20,000 more soldiers needed – senators

Duterte, the first President from Mindanao, promised during the 2016 presidential campaign to pass the BBL if he were elected.

The BBL was first submitted to the Aquino administration in 2014, but its passage was stalled after the brutal killing of 44 members of an elite unit of police by rebels belonging to the MILF and the BIFF in January 2015.