KOTA KINABALU: The Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) will remain on alert against the heightened risk of militants fleeing to the state as Philippine forces step up efforts to capture the last strongholds of Daesh-affiliated groups in Marawi city, southern Philippines.
The Philippine military is pushing to free the last small sections of the city still under the militants as the fighting enters the final phase.
The heavy offensive by the military that included airstrikes raised the possibility of fleeing militants entering the east coast of Sabah.
“We will keep monitoring our borders with the southern Philippines for any possibility,” Hazani Ghazali, commander of Esscom, told FMT today.
In the latest development in the Marawi conflict, troops last Saturday rescued catholic priest Rev Teresito Suganob who had been held hostage for 117 days by the rebels.
Senior presidential adviser Jesus Dureza said the priest was rescued during an operation to clear a mosque used by the militants as a defensive post.
Isnilon Hapilon, Daesh’s emir-designate for Southeast Asia and leader of the Abu Sayyaf group fighting troops in Marawi, was believed by the authorities to be still alive. He is on Esscom’s list of wanted people.
Another person wanted by Escom, Abdullah Maute, founder of the Maute group, which has also pledged allegiance to Daesh and are fighting government forces alongside Abu Sayyaf in Marawi, was reported to have been killed in an airstrike in August but his death is yet to be confirmed.
The authorities also reported five more Maute brothers had been killed based on information from hostages who had escaped but their deaths have not been verified.
This leaves only one Maute brother, Omar, co-founder of the Maute group, possibly still alive, Philippine security authorities said.
Over 800 militants, soldiers and civilians were reported to have been killed in the Marawi clashes, which started on May 23.
In June, former Esscom commander Wan Abdul Bari Abdul Khalid said there were concerns that Isnilon and Abdullah could try to slip into Sabah to escape the dragnet by the Philippine military.
FMT had also reported that Esscom was not discounting a possible new threat from southern Philippine women and children who were reportedly used by the militants to fight troops.
Esscom is hoping that a meeting between security agencies from Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia scheduled in Kuala Lumpur in October would pave the way for the opening of borders in the fight against militancy.
“We welcome the potential agreement between the three governments to allow our security forces to enter each other’s waters while in hot pursuit of pirates, kidnappers and militants,” Hazani told FMT.
“This would definitely avoid the lag time — the gap between when we stop chasing on reaching our maritime border and the time the neighbouring country’s forces pick up the chase.
“This is what we want — to be able to pursue until we apprehend the criminals.”