Maj. Gen. Restituto Padilla, spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), told Arab News it is “probable” that one of those dead was one of the leaders of the Daesh-inspired Muslim extremist group.
The crisis in the Philippines’ only Muslim city has left over 1,000 dead in clashes between government troops and the group. After 142 days, the death toll includes 802 militants, 160 government troops and policemen, and 47 civilians, according to the military.
Padilla stressed that the military remained focused in its mission to liberate the city completely from the clutches of the Maute group.
The 22 corpses were recovered following a heavy firefight on Tuesday as the army attacked a terrorist base of two buildings, Padilla said. Eighteen bodies were recovered from one of the buildings and four from the other.
“The assault paved the way for the police’s forensic experts to come in. They will conduct DNA tests on the recovered bodies,” Padilla explained. Those tests will enable Philippine National Police (PNP) scenes of crime officers (SOCOs) to establish the identities of the dead, and to confirm if one of the Maute group’s leaders is indeed among them.
When asked what made the military conclude that the remains belonged to militants, Padilla said the buildings from which the bodies were recovered were the scene of “heavy resistance” from Maute fighters in a battle that “went on for a number of days.”
Aside from the 22 bodies, Padilla said the troops also recovered eight high-powered firearms, including two RPGs, four M16s, one M4, and one M14, along with “dozens and dozens” of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
“This must be the place where the rebels have been manufacturing the IEDs that have been used in the remaining areas of enemy-held territory,” Padilla explained.
Asked about Isnilon Hapilon, leader of Daesh in the Philippines, and Omar Maute, co-founder of the Dawlah Islamiyah group in Mindanao (commonly known as the Maute group), the AFP spokesman said they are still in the area, citing testimonies from rescued hostages.
Padilla also said the area controlled by the Maute group has now shrunk to five hectares or less, while the number of buildings that the military still need to clear is down to approximately 150.
He said the AFP believe that around 40 Maute fighters are still in the area but added that the military is “not giving any categorical statement on the deadline” for an end to the fighting.
Padilla stressed that the armed forces are doing everything possible to end the crisis so that efforts to rebuild the city can start. However, he noted: “The battle is still ongoing. Our troops are focused and determined to finish it as soon as possible, but they have to take into consideration the remaining hostages, who include a number of children.”