MANILA – Security forces have seized some 79 million pesos (S$2.2 million) worth of cash and cheques from Muslim militants still holed up in the southern city of Marawi, in the war-torn southern island group of Mindanao.
Lieutenant-Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera, spokesman of Joint Task Force Marawi, told reporters on Tuesday (June 6) that 52 million pesos in cash and 27 million pesos worth of cheques were found on Monday inside a vault in Marawi’s Mapandi district, where clashes continue more than two weeks after some 500 militants attacked Marawi.
The vault was inside a house guarded by a machine gun nest and snipers.
“This shows that (the militants) are well-connected. They have supporters, they have sympathisers, with funding from international terrorist organisations,” said Lt-Col Herrera.
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But it was not clear where the money came from, or whether the insurgents had it already stashed before their assault on Marawi.
Hundreds of fighters, mostly from the Maute group, which has pledged allegiance to the ultra-radical Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), seized large parts of Marawi on May 23, after a botched raid on a suspected hideout of Isnilon Hapilon, the designated head of ISIS in South-east Asia.
Dozens of foreigners from Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya and Morocco are believed to be fighting with the militants.
Security officials said earlier the insurgents were prepared for a drawn-out siege of Marawi, as they had recovered weapons, ammunition and food provisions hidden in mosques, tunnels and basements all over the city.
Major Rowan Rimas, an operations officer of the Philippine Marines, said the money could not have been left behind by fleeing civilians.
“If it belonged to the owner of the house, he would not have left it there. There were no more vehicles in the house,” he said.
Images showed the cash bundled in 1,000-peso denomination, neatly wrapped in plastic, while many of the cheques had “cash” written as recipients.
Asked if the money could have come from three banks in Marawi that the militants ransacked in the early days of the fighting, Lt-Col Herrera said the matter was being investigated.
President Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to clear Marawi of all militants and end the siege this week.
Security officials, however, were not committing to any deadline, as ground troops engage in pitched battles against a highly mobile, well-stocked enemy that is more familiar with the terrain.
Local officials, meanwhile, are focusing on rescuing civilians still trapped in districts still held by the militants.
A four-hour ceasefire to evacuate residents was marred by gunfire on Sunday, leaving hundreds of civilians who had hoped to flee the fighting stuck in their homes.
Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, the military spokesman, said 1,467 civilians had been rescued so far, and that 500 to 600 still trapped were already low on food and water.
Officials reported that 120 militants have so far been killed, while 38 soldiers have died.