(UPDATED) -- THE Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on Friday, May 26, confirmed the presence of foreign terrorists in Mindanao after six of the 12 verified Maute Group members, who were among those killed in clashes with government troops in Marawi City were from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Solicitor General Jose Calida said Indonesians and Malaysians are fighting alongside the gunmen who attacked the city on Tuesday afternoon, May 23.
"What is happening in Mindanao is no longer a rebellion of Filipino citizens," Calida told reporters. "It has transmogrified into an invasion by foreign terrorists who heeded the clarion call of Isis."
AFP spokesperson Brigadier General Restituto Padilla, in a press conference held at The Royal Mandaya Hotel, Davao City, said the foreign terrorists visited the country a few years back to educate and connect with different Jihad groups in Mindanao, forming a collective force or rebellion.
Padilla said previous accomplishment of the AFP showed evidence of their presence through recovered passports and confirmed reports that came from their own nations as well as with the intelligence reports gathered by the national government authorities.
Padilla, however, said that President Rodrigo Duterte has not yet verified if these foreign terrorists are from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) but affirmed that these groups are trying to ally with Isis, eager to comply with the requirements set to them.
"These terrorist groups in the country have not been able to comply yet and that is the reason why many of these activities of violence, radicalism, and extremism, have been aimed precisely in Mindanao for that purpose," Padilla said.
He also said drug-related activities are the sole means of the Maute Group in generating resources for their attacks. He added that evidence of drug paraphernalia were recovered during their previous operations in the camps of the terrorist group.
Government troops backed by armored vehicles and rocket-firing helicopters are fighting to re-take control of Marawi, which has been under siege by gunmen linked to the IS group since a raid earlier this week failed to capture one of Asia's most-wanted terrorists.
Rebels have torn through the streets of Marawi since Tuesday night, May 23, torching buildings, taking a priest and his worshippers hostage and sealing off much of the city. The violence forced thousands to flee and raised fears of growing extremism in the country.
READ: Troops, Maute group clash in Marawi City; 3 dead, 12 injured
At least 44 people have died in the fighting, including 31 bandits and 11 soldiers, officials said Thursday. It was not immediately clear whether civilians were among the dead.
In a sign of the confusion over events inside the city, a local police chief told The Associated Press on Friday that he was alive and well — two days after President Rodrigo Duterte told the media he had been beheaded by militants.
Police Chief Romeo Enriquez said there may have been confusion because his predecessor in Malabang, a town near Marawi, was killed in the fighting on Tuesday, although he was not beheaded.
READ:Malabang town police chief safe, not beheaded
As authorities worked to clear the city, residents spoke of their terror.
"At night we can hear the gunfire," said Mohammad Usman, who watched from his home just outside Marawi as thousands of residents streamed out of the city Thursday. "I'm just praying that the bullets will not find their way to my house and hit us. I hope that the bombs will not land nearby and harm us."
Duterte imposed 60 days of martial law Tuesday on the island of Mindanao, a traditional homeland of minority Muslims that encompasses the southern third of the nation and is home to 22 million people. Marawi has a population of around 200,000.
Duterte warned he may expand martial law nationwide, an unnerving development for many in the Philippines who lived through the rule of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos declared martial law in 1972 and used it to maintain his grip on power for more than a decade.
The man at the center of the Marawi violence is Isnilon Hapilon, an Arabic-speaking Islamic preacher known for his expertise in commando assaults. He is at the nexus of several militant groups that are trying to merge into a more powerful force.
Hapilon, who is a commander of the Abu Sayyaf bandit group, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in 2014. He also heads an alliance that includes at least 10 smaller militant groups, including the Maute, which have a heavy presence in Marawi and were instrumental in fighting off government forces in this week's battles.
All these groups are inspired by the Islamic State group, but so far there is no sign of significant, material ties.
"We have not seen any concrete evidence of material support from IS," military spokesman Padilla said Thursday. But he added that the smaller groups "are working to really get that recognition and funds, of course."
Washington has offered a $5-million reward for information leading to Hapilon's capture, but he has proved elusive. The Philippines launched an airstrike that wounded him in January, but he got away.
The Army raided what it believed to be his hideout on Tuesday night in Marawi, but the operation quickly went wrong. Militants called in reinforcements and were able to overpower government forces. Once again, Hapilon escaped.
Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff General Eduardo Ano said Friday that Hapilon is still in the besieged city and supporters are trying to find a way to extricate their leader.
Much of Marawi was still a no-go zone. Automatic gunfire and explosions could be heard clearly and plumes of black smoke rose from the direction of the city center. Air force helicopters swooped overhead.
As authorities tried to gain more control over the city, disturbing details have emerged.
The bandits forced their way into the Marawi Cathedral and seized a Catholic priest, 10 worshippers and three church workers, according to the city's bishop, Edwin de la Pena. The black flags of the Islamic State group were planted atop buildings and flown from commandeered vehicles, including a government ambulance and an armored car, said Mamintal Alonto Adiong Jr., vice governor of Lanao del Sur province, of which Marawi is the capital.
More than half of the population of Marawi has cleared out, Adiong said.
The problem of militancy in the south, the scene of decades-long Muslim separatist uprisings in the predominantly Catholic nation, is not new.
Duterte had repeatedly threatened to place the region under martial law, which allows him to use the armed forces to carry out arrests, searches and detentions more rapidly. But human rights groups and others fear that martial law powers could further embolden the president, who already has been accused of allowing extrajudicial killings of thousands of people in his crackdown on illegal drugs.
As of Friday, Calida said Duterte already ordered the Philippine Coast Guard to monitor and strengthen the security in the Philippine borders against the possible invasion of foreign terrorists especially in Southern and Eastern Mindanao.
He added that the National Government is currently communicating with the governments of these foreign terrorists for bilateral agreements on terrorism. (AP with reports from Bomie Lane S. Castillo/SunStar Davao)