There are an estimated 1,200 operatives of the terror group ISIS in the Philippines, the Indonesia defense minister announced during an international security forum in Singapore on Sunday.
Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu said this number includes foreigners, 40 of whom are from Indonesia. He called on members of the region to cooperate in fighting against ISIS "killing machines."
"I was advised last night, 1,200 ISIS in the Philippines, around 40 from Indonesia," Ryacudu said, according to AFP.
The announcement was made amid the ongoing battle between ISIS-linked Maute fighters and the members of the Philippine military in Marawi, a city in Mindanao, which is located in the southern part of the country.
On May 23, Maute fighters descended upon Marawi and attacked the residents, setting on fire several buildings and taking hundreds of people as hostages after a failed military "surgical operation" to take out Isnilon Hapilon.
Hapilon is known to be the leader of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group that pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2014. He is listed among the FBI's most wanted, with a $5 million bounty on his head.
When the military found out where he was holed up in Marawi, they proceeded to launch the surgical operation, only to discover that the core leaders of the Maute fighters, another terrorist group affiliated with ISIS, was there with him.
Gunfire erupted between the soldiers and the militants. The clash that ensued prompted Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte to declare a 60-day martial law over the entire island of Mindanao, a move highly criticized by several groups saying the problem could be addressed without such proclamation.
According to a video recently obtained by the Associated Press, the Marawi attack was carefully planned, including the siege of several buildings and the closure of certain highways, "so the people will get scared."
The AP report also named Hapilon as the purported leader of ISIS in the Southeast Asia region.
The government estimated the number of local and foreign ISIS-linked fighters in Marawi at 400 to 500. Last week, reports confirmed the presence of foreign terrorists in the city who joined the Marawi attack.
According to local sources, there were about 40 militants from other countries, such as Saudi, Yemen, Indonesia, India, Chechnya, Morocco, Malaysia, Turkey and Pakistan, raising speculations that ISIS could be attempting to gain a foothold in Southeast Asia through the Philippines, as its grip in Syria and Iraq weakens.
"IS is shrinking in Iraq and Syria, and decentralizing in parts of Asia and the Middle East," Rohan Gunaratna, security expert at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said according to Reuters.
"One of the areas where it is expanding is Southeast Asia and the Philippines is the center of gravity," he added.
However, the Philippine government did not agree with the Indonesian defense minister that there are 1,200 ISIS fighters in the Philippines, saying there is "no proof yet of the presence of foreign fighters."
Restituto Padilla Jr., spokesperson for the military, said the Ryacudu's announcement at Sunday's international security forum "came as a surprise."
"The revelations of the Indonesian defense minister is something that came as a surprise to us because as what was mentioned by senior defense officials, in truth, we don't have those numbers," Padilla said at a press conference, according to local media outlet SunStar Manila.
Unlike earlier reports saying there are 40 foreign militants in Marawi, Padilla said ground commanders spotted 50 foreign terrorists in the city.
This is in contradiction to presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella's statement that the government has not yet confirmed how many ISIS fighters there are in the country at present.
"It is clear that the violence in Marawi is being waged by both Philippine and international criminals," Abella said.
He added that Mindanao "has long been a refuge (for) fugitives from Indonesia, Malaysia, and other locations."
Marawi residents who were able to escape told of the Maute fighters' brutal killing of Christians who were not able to leave the city. The residents said the militants separated the Christians from the Muslims and killed them.
Colonel Edgard Arevalo, spokesperson of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), confirmed reports that the militants are separating the Christians from the Muslims.
"It's sad that we are getting reports from the ground that the terrorists are separating fleeing Christians and Muslim," he said, according to ABS-CBN. "They are letting the Muslims go but not the Christians.
Yet, in the midst of terrorist attacks, some Muslim residents secretly sheltered Christians in their homes and helped them flee to safety, sparing them from certain death.
On Saturday, a number of residents braved the snipers and shielded the Christians from the terrorists as they marched out of the city. They also hid the identity of the Christians when Maute fighters stopped them and asked if there were Christians in the group.
As of Monday, the total number of people rescued from Marawi has reached 1,450.