DAVAO CITY, Philippines – The Philippine government on Friday, May 26, said foreigners were among the Maute Group and Abu Sayyaf Group members fighting government troops in Marawi City.
"Malaysian, Indonesians from Singapore, and other foreign jihadists," said Solicitor General Jose Calida in a press conference with Palace officials and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in Davao City.
Calida, in explaining why President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law over the entire Mindanao island region, said: "What's happening in Mindanao is no longer a rebellion of Filipino citizens. It has transmogrified into invasion by foreign terrorists who heeded the clarion call of the ISIS (Islamic State) to go to the Philippines if they find difficulty in going to Iraq or Syria."
AFP spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla, who was also at the press conference, confirmed that of the 31 alleged Maute Group members killed in clashes with government troops, 6 had been identified as foreigners.
Martial law was declared in Mindanao last Tuesday, May 23, following what the military said was a surgical strike against Abu Sayyaf Group leader Isnilon Hapilon, who is believed to have pledged allegiance to ISIS. (READ: Making sense of Duterte's martial law)
Critics said the clashes in Marawi City did not merit a Mindanao-wide coverage of martial law and that Duterte is merely using the conflict as basis for imposing tougher measures and silencing dissent.
Last Tuesday, at least 3 fires broke out in Marawi City. Thousands of residents have since fled the city as government troops continue to conduct clearing operations. (READ: He watched Maute Group kill a cop, then he escaped)
Padilla would only confirm the presence of Indonesian and Malaysian fighters and refused to say how many of each nationality were identified as those killed.
The AFP spokesman said the foreigners had been living in the Philippines for "a long time."
"Some have been helping, teaching, aiding, and connecting [local terror groups]," he added.
But no ISIS?
Still, Padilla said this does not equate to ISIS presence in the country. "Again, on the matter of ISIS, the President emphasized that there's [an] ISIS footprint but that does not confirm the clear presence of ISIS itself yet," he told media in a chance interview.
But a terrorism expert warned the government against downplaying ISIS presence in the Philippines. The country is now the terrorist group's epicenter in Southeast Asia, Rohan Gunaratna told Rappler. (READ & WATCH: Admit ISIS presence in Philippines, analyst says)
Members of the Maute Group, while breakaway elements of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), "are no longer Mautes" and "are no longer MILF," Gunaratna explained.
"They are IS, because they are operating like IS, and they have changed the name," he said. "So we have to name them by the group they call themselves." – Rappler.com