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A Philippine soldier stands guard in front of damaged buildings in Marawi on Sept. 4.   © Reuters

Philippines works to contain, finish extremists in Mindanao

Neighbors on alert to keep Islamic State-linked militants from spilling out

MANILA/SINGAPORE -- As Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's forces fight to regain control over Marawi, where more than 850 people have died since extremist militants took the city in May, he also faces the challenge of preventing the violence from spilling into other regions in and outside the country.

Duterte pledged to continue fully supporting government troops in Marawi on Monday during his fourth trip to the southern city since the conflict began. He spent about an hour and a half thanking soldiers and police.

The Maute group, an extremist organization linked to the Islamic State group, occupied the Marawi city hall and other areas May 23. Duterte responded by placing the entire island of Mindanao under martial law, as well as deploying tens of thousands of soldiers and conducting air raids against the militants.

Government forces have intensified their offensive against the Maute since late August. An intense gunfight Tuesday lasted for about 30 minutes. Since May, 660 insurgents have been killed, as have 145 soldiers and 45 civilians.

About 40 militants are holding out across roughly 200,000 sq. meters with around 30 civilian hostages, the Philippine military said.

International effort

Duterte says the fighting is in its final stages. However, the president noted Sept. 1 that though he previously considered lifting martial law before the Dec. 31 end date, he now might extend it in order to wipe out IS-linked extremists at home and to prevent the violence from spreading.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, center, speaks after visiting wounded soldiers who fought against insurgents of the Maute group, who have taken over large parts of Marawi city, at a military camp in Cagayan De Oro, Philippines, on June 11.   © Reuters

Indonesian and Malaysian militants have joined the Maute group. Duterte wants to meet with Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to discuss further trilateral security cooperation beyond their joint maritime patrols.

Other countries have extended military assistance to the Philippines as well. The U.S. said Monday that it deployed the Gray Eagle surveillance drone to Mindanao, in addition to the other unmanned aircraft and two patrol planes it previously sent. Australia sent troops to the Philippines on Friday and said it would help train Philippine forces. China on Sept. 5 requested joint drills.

With Manila hosting the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit and related meetings in November, continued conflict in Mindanao could hurt the country's diplomatic profile as well as foreign investment.

Stemming the tide

Meanwhile, neighboring nations remain vigilant against extremists spilling across their borders from Marawi. Malaysian police detained 19 people in July and August, alleging terrorist activities. Eleven of them were foreigners, including members of IS and the Philippine-based Abu Sayyaf group. Some of them reportedly were planning attacks on the Southeast Asian Games and festivities for Malaysia's independence day.

Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs said Thursday that it made two terrorism-related arrests. A 34-year-old man was detained, accused of trying to join IS and another extremist group in the Philippines as well as influence friends to support such militants. A 23-year-old woman was alleged to have contacted several IS fighters. Both were Singaporean nationals.

Singapore previously has foiled terrorist plots against key business districts and resorts. Southeast Asian countries, knowing a successful strike in a major urban area likely will result in massive casualties, are maintaining close contact to try to prevent terrorist attacks.

But the recent flood of Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence in Myanmar has raised additional concerns. Neighboring countries have called on Myanmar to resolve the conflict as quickly as possible, as a protracted refugee crisis could create an opening for extremist groups to expand their influence in the region.

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