Isnilon Hapilon believed to be out of Marawi

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 26) — The military has reason to believe terror leader Isnilon Hapilon may no longer be in Marawi, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Public Affairs Chief Lt. Gen. Edgard Arevalo disclosed Monday.

"We have [a] report that shows or says that Isnilon Hapilon, the tauted emir of [the Islamic State (ISIS)] in the Philippines, has already abandoned his people," Arevalo told CNN Philippines' The Source.

"So this indicates somehow that their defense or their leadership and their command and control is already collapsing due to the intense pressure that our government forces are letting them experience," he added.

Hapilon — a leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group — and members of the Maute Group pledged allegiance to terror organizaiton ISIS. Hapilon was pegged to be a leader of a Southeast Asian caliphate for ISIS, which the military believes they are looking to establish in Marawi City.

As the military planned to arrest Hapilon on May 23, Maute Group members entered Marawi and clashed with government troops. The crisis prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law across Mindanao.

When asked if this meant Hapilon had left Marawi City, Arevalo replied, "We have those reports that indicate that. We monitor them according to our sources on the ground and for those we have rescued."

"Most of them were not quite able to say they saw Isnilon Hapilon lately, so these are some indicators that he has abandoned his people already," said Arevalo.

Joint Task Force Marawi Spokesperson Lt. Col. Jo-Ar Herrera also said in a media briefing Monday that they are validating the possible escape of Hapilon.

The report comes amid reported division among Maute group leaders, whom the military believes are feeling the pressure of government troops closing in on them.

Related: There's divisiveness among Maute Group leaders – AFP

Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella reminded on Tuesday that the information was still being validated.

"Granting that this is true, it would be a clear sign of his cowardice because he abandoned his companions and has run away from the battle," said Abella.

"It may also be indicative of the infighting that may now be going on within the group. It may be a matter of time before they disintegrate or self-destruct," he added.

Herrera said that there were problems in the internal communication, discipline, and ideological perspective of members of the Maute.

"Marami dito ang prinamis ng leadership ng pera. Kaya kung makikita natin, babalikan natin yung istorya, yung narrative, anong gagawin nila? Ise-seal off nila yung Marawi City, they will loot, kukunin nila lahat ng kayamanan... Ang daming nagsisisi ngayon na taga-Marawi, because of what happened," said Herrera.

[Translation: A lot of people here were promised money by the leadership. If we go back to their narrative, they planned to seal off Marawi City, loot and steal riches... And a lot of those from Marawi are regretting (agreeing to this plan), because of what happened.]

He added that those who were native to Marawi were also facing pressure from religious and community figures who were urging the Maute to leave or surrender.

The crisis has seen the death of over 300, including some 290 Maute members, 70 government troops, and 27 civilians. It has also displaced an estimated 200,000 people.

Verifying Maute financier dead, hostaged priest alive

The military is also working to verify the death of Maute's Malaysian financier, Mahmud bin Ahmad, which would be "a big blow to the Maute group."

"Even... Mahmud [has] also been reported to have been neutralized as well," said Arevalo. "The reports that we have was that he was already buried in one of the cemeteries in Marawi, and this is subject of our validation."

Arevalo added that a welcome development was the sighting of Fr. Chito Suganob, a Catholic priest who had been taken hostage by the terrorists.

"Reports [are] coming from those who were able to rescue that Fr. Chito is still alive. He was seen there," said Arevalo. "Hopes are still aflame that we'll be able to save the priest and the other parishioners who were kidnapped together with him."

Arevalo said that among the figures negotiating for the surrender of the hostages were eight emissaries, including respected religious leaders. They were able to speak to Abdullah and Madi Maute, two of the Maute brothers.

"This group [was] trying to convince the leaders of the ISIS group to surrender and set free the civilians they are still holding hostage up to that time," said Arevalo. "But with regard to how it went out and turned out, we are not quite privy about it yet."

Clearing ops continue

Herrera said on Monday that they facilitated the rescue of six civilians during the eight-hour humanitarian pause in light of Eid'l Fitr. He also announced the retrieval of a civilian cadaver, whom Arevalo disclosed was an imam. Arevalo reported the rescue of a total 1,704 civilians.

Related: Peaceful Eid'l Fitr in Marawi warzone

Herrera also announced the successful clearing of 86 buildings and the recovery of 360 firearms and two cadavers, belonging to Middle Eastern foreigners.

With an estimated 100 to 120 Maute members left, Arevalo said clearing operations may go on even after Maute Group members are flushed out.

"They left landmines, booby traps and tripwires that would definitely cause [the] death and maiming of our rescue workers and all other concerned citizens who would like to help," said Arevalo. "So we still have to clear this with IED experts, and it will take quite some time, but this is a necessary step for us to ensure that there will be no more... loss of lives."

The military could not peg a date for the end of the crisis, but Arevalo assured that victory was on the horizon.

"Our victory in the AFP is irreversible. We see this coming in a few days," he said. "We just cannot do this hurriedly without endangering the lives of innocent civilians. That's why we are very careful and very prudent in our actions."

The military also plugged in details for how to donate to Marawi. They are accepting donations in cash and kind for both soldiers and their families as well as the displaced.

Related: Do more than Pray for Marawi – where to donate

Arevalo said the AFP is expected to publish a breakdown of the donations and expenses for transparency.