COVID-19 protocols help military in fight vs IS-inspired groups

KORONADAL CITY (MindaNews / 14 February) – Strict enforcement of security protocols due to  the COVID-19 pandemic has helped the military in its fight against the Islamic State-inspired militants in war-torn Marawi and neighboring areas, the commander of the Army brigade there said.

Brig. Gen Jose Maria Cuerpo III, commander of the 103rd Infantry Brigade in Marawi City, said the COVID-19 contagion disrupted not only the military’s operational tempo but also the activities of threat groups operating in their jurisdiction, particularly the remnants of the Maute Group, which seized the country’s lone Islamic city in May 2017 in a bid to establish a “wilaya” or province of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia.

Brig. Gen. Jose Maria Cuerpo III, commander of the 103rd Infantry Brigade. MindaNews photo by FROILAN GALLARDO

“COVID-19 has affected not only us but also our threat groups. Their activities are slowing down, affected mostly by the many checkpoints set up by the PNP (Philippine National Police) and Army along the different municipalities, which are also the quarantine checkpoints established by the local government units (LGUs),” he said on Saturday in “COVID, Conflicts and the Peace Process: Focus on Marawi,” an online forum initiated by MindaNews in partnership with Internews.

The Maute Group, augmented by forces of the Abu Sayyaf under Isnilon Hapilon, laid siege on Marawi City on May 23, 2017,  after a botched attempt by a joint military and police team to arrest Hapilon in a rented apartment in the city. The fighting displaced  at least 350,000 civilians, many of whom have yet to rebuild their houses and commercial buildings in the 250-hectare Ground Zero, the main battle area reduced into a rubble  after the five-month war.

On October 17, 2017, a day after Hapilon and Omar Maute were killed, President Rodrigo Duterte declared Marawi City “liberated from the terrorist influence that marks the beginning of rehabilitation for the people.”

On October 23,2017, exactly five months to the day the fighting began, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzan ordered the termination of all combat operations in the city.

But three years after Duterte claimed military victory in Marawi,  displaced residents in the MAA have yet to return home.

The Task Force Bangon Marawi has repeatedly vowed to complete rehabilitation work by December 2021. Assistant Secretary Felix Castro told the forum that rehabilitation efforts were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic especially when strict quarantine measures were imposed and construction workers went home.  But Castro said they are back on track and he is optimistic they can meet the schedule.

He said TFBM chair Secretary Eduardo del Rosario has been visiting Marawi City every month to check on the progress.

More than three years after “liberation,” IS-inspired militants still remain a threat in Marawi City and the two Lanao provinces, said Cuerpo, who was deputy commander of the 103rd Infantry Brigade during the Marawi siege and was appointed commander in 2019.

Cuerpo said they have monitored 40 to 50 remnants of the Maute Group in their operational jurisdiction, which covers the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte

Just last week, he said, troops clashed with IS-inspired militants in the mountainous portions of Piagapo and Madalum municipalities, both in Lanao del Sur, that resulted in the death of one soldier and the wounding of five others. The enemy side suffered an undetermined number of casualties, he added.

Brig. Gen. Jose Maria Cuerpo, commander of the 103rd Infantry Brigade in Marawi City gives a situationer on the security issues in Marawi at the “COVID, Conflicts and the Peace Process” online forum on Saturday, 13 February 2021.

As part of the provincial COVID-19 Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, Cuerpo said  his brigade had to make adjustments on its operational management due to the pandemic.

He recalled that the first three months of the pandemic last year disrupted the brigade’s operational rhythm. But he added that this period also served as a learning curve for troops to adjust their strategies in flushing out the militants in the area.

Besides “effectively” restricting the movement of the Daesh-inspired Maute Group remnants, the COVID-19 pandemic also gave the military and local government units  “the break” to settle some of the deadly big rido (family feud) involving influential clans in Lanao del Sur, Cuerpo said. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)