Hostages in Philippines siege forced to fight, loot, become sex slaves: army

An explosion is seen after a Philippines army aircraft released a bomb during an airstrike as government troops continue their assault against insurgents from the Maute group in Marawi city June 27, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

By Kanupriya Kapoor

MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – Civilians held hostage by Islamist militants occupying a southern Philippine city have been forced by their captors to loot homes, take up arms against government troops and serve as sex slaves for rebel fighters, the army said on Tuesday.Citing accounts of seven residents of Marawi City who either escaped or were rescued, the military said some hostages were forced to convert to Islam, carry wounded fighters to mosques, and marry militants of the Maute group loyal to Islamic State.

“So they are being forced to be sex slaves, forced to destroy the dignity of these women,” military spokesman Jo-Ar Herrera told a news conference.

“So this is what is happening inside, this is very evident … these are evil personalities.”

Their accounts, which could not be immediately verified, are the latest harrowing stories to come out of a conflict zone that the military has been unable to penetrate for five weeks, as well-armed and organized rebels fight off soldiers with sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

Some escapees say bodies of residents have been left in the streets, some for weeks, and civilians are distressed by government air strikes and artillery bombardments that have reduced parts of Marawi to rubble.

The protracted seizure has worried the region about the extent the Islamic State’s agenda may have gained traction in the southern Philippines, which is more used to banditry, piracy and separatism than radical Islam.

The rebels’ combat capability, access to heavy weapons and use of foreign fighters has raised fears in the mainly Catholic country that the Marawi battle could just be the start of a wider campaign, and be presented by Maute as a triumph to aid their recruitment efforts.

Heavy clashes broke out on Tuesday as the battle entered its sixth week, with intense bombings by planes on a shrinking rebel zone.

NO NEGOTIATIONS

The government ruled out negotiations after reports that Abdullah Maute, one of two brothers who formed the militant group carrying their name, wanted to trade a Catholic priest hostage for his parents arrested earlier this month.

The military said on Saturday Abdullah Maute had fled.

Taking advantage of a short truce to mark the Eid al-Fitr Islamic holiday, eight Muslim leaders met briefly on Sunday with Maute. The Philippine Daily Inquirer said he had asked for his father, Cayamora Maute, and influential businesswoman mother, Farhana Maute, to be freed, in a swap for Father Teresito “Chito” Soganub.

But presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said deals with militants were against government policy, and anyone trying to bargain had no authority to do so.

“The local religious leader-led talks with terrorists last Sunday was one not sanctioned,” Abella told reporters.

“Any demands made inside, therefore, hold no basis. Let us remind the public, the gravity of the terrorists and their supporters’ offences is immense.”

The military’s public relations machine has been insisting that the rebel leadership was crumbling, saying top commanders had escaped or were killed in action, and the group was fraught with infighting, even executing their own men for wanting to surrender.

Military officers, however, accept they lack solid proof of such developments and were working to verify intelligence reports.

The army said there were reported sightings of the departure from the battle of Isnilon Hapilon, Islamic State’s anointed Southeast Asian “emir”, which Abella said showed he was not committed to his cause.

“It would be a clear sign of his cowardice,” Abella said of Hapilon.

“It may only be a matter of time before they disintegrate.”

Fighting has raged in the town since an operation to arrest Hapilon went wrong on May 23, leading to the government losing not just Hapilon, but control of Marawi.

Official figures show 70 servicemen, 27 civilians and 290 militants have since been killed and 246,000 people displaced.

(Additional reporting by Martin Petty and Karen Lema in MANILA; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Philippines says Islamist fighters trapped in corner of besieged town

Billowing smoke is seen as government troops continue their assault against insurgents from the Maute group, who have taken over parts of Marawi City, Philippines June 22, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

By Manuel Mogato and Simon Lewis

MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – Islamist militants holed up in a southern Philippines town have been cornered and their firepower is flagging, the military said on Thursday, as the five-week battle for control of Marawi City raged on.

Despite signs that the insurgents are now on the back foot, Southeast Asian governments are worried that the siege could be just the prelude to further violence as the ultra-radical Islamic State group tries to establish a foothold in their region.

Jolted by the May 23 attack on Marawi, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have launched joint patrols to control the movement of militants across their archipelagic region and their foreign ministers gathered in Manila on Thursday for talks.

Malaysia is worried that militants who are flushed out of Marawi City by the fighting may try to cross from the Philippines to its eastern state of Sabah.

“We fear that they may enter the country disguised as illegal immigrants or foreign fishermen,” said Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) chief Wan Abdul Bari Wan Abdul Khalid, according to state news agency Bernama.

It said Esscom had drawn up a “wanted” list that included two militants who spearheaded the attempt to capture Marawi.

They are Abu Sayyaf group leader Isnilon Hapilon, who was proclaimed by Islamic State last year as its “emir” of Southeast Asia, and Abdullah Maute, whose followers accounted for a large number of the estimated 400-500 fighters who overran part of the town, killing Christians and taking dozens of civilians hostage.

The fighting in Marawi broke out on May 23.

Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera said on Thursday the number of militants holding out in Marawi had dwindled to “a little over 100”.

Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Tampus said: “Their area has been reduced to 1 km square only.” Tampus’ troops are blocking escape routes across bridges spanning a river to the west of the militants.

“Our forces are coming from the east and the north and we are blocking the three bridges,” he said.

Tampus told reporters that the militants were still using snipers who were firing from “strategic nests” in schools and mosques, and homemade bombs were hampering the progress of Philippine troops as they advanced house by house.

He said he had seen at least five civilians dressed in black who appeared to have been forced to stand in the street as human shields.

According to official estimates late on Wednesday, 369 people have been killed during the month of hostilities, three-quarters of them militants. The number of security forces and civilians killed stood at 67 and 26, respectively.

For graphic on Philippines hostage drama, click: http://tmsnrt.rs/2sOnEp8

(Additional reporting by Karen Lema and Neil Jerome Morales in MANILA and Rozanna Latiff in KUALA LUMPUR; Writing by John Chalmers)

Abortive Brussels attack could have been much worse: PM

Belgian soldiers patrol inside Brussels central railway station after a suicide bomber was shot dead by troops in Brussels, Belgium, June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

By Philip Blenkinsop and Charlotte Steenackers

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – A suitcase bomb packed with nails and gas bottles could have caused heavy casualties, Belgium’s prime minister said on Wednesday, a day after a soldier shot dead a Moroccan national attempting an attack on Brussels’ central station.

“We have avoided an attack that could have been a great deal worse,” Charles Michel told reporters after a national security council meeting following Tuesday evening’s incident, in which no one else was hurt.

However, no further threat was seen as imminent and the public alert level was left unchanged.

A counter-terrorism prosecutor named the dead man only by his initials, O.Z. He was a 36-year-old Moroccan citizen who lived in the Brussels borough of Molenbeek and had not been suspected of militant links. He set off his bomb on a crowded station concourse below ground at 8:44 p.m. (2.44 p.m. ET).

Walking up to a group of passengers, prosecutor Eric Van Der Sypt said, “he grabbed his suitcase, while shouting and causing a partial explosion. Fortunately, nobody was hurt.”

The suitcase, later found to contain nails and gas bottles, caught fire and then exploded a second time more violently as the man ran downstairs to the platforms.

He then ran back up to the concourse where commuters had been milling around and rushed toward a soldier shouting “Allahu akbar” — God is greater, in Arabic. The soldier, part of a routine patrol, shot him several times. Bomb disposal experts checked the body and found he was not carrying more explosives.

Police raided the man’s home overnight, Van Der Sypt said.

Molenbeek, an impoverished borough with a big Moroccan Muslim population just across Brussels’ industrial canal from its historic center, gained notoriety after an Islamic State cell based there mounted suicide attacks on Paris in November 2015 that killed 130 people. Associates of that group attacked Brussels itself four months later, killing 32 people.

Belgian policemen get out of a house after searching it, following yesterday's attack, in Brussels, Belgium June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Vidal

Belgian policemen get out of a house after searching it, following yesterday’s attack, in Brussels, Belgium June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Vidal

“WE WILL NOT BE INTIMIDATED”

Prime Minister Michel insisted the country, which has been the most fertile European recruiting ground for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, would not bow to threats that have seen combat troops become a permanent fixture at public spaces in Brussels.

“We will not let ourselves be intimidated,” Michel said. “We will go on living our lives as normal.”

There was no immediate claim of responsibility and no word on how investigations are progressing into whether the man had acted alone or had help, and into any links to radical groups.

The Belgian capital, home to the headquarters of NATO and the European Union, took a heavy hit to its tourist industry last year. Visitors and residents out enjoying a hot summer’s evening on the ornate Renaissance town square, the Grand Place, close to Central Station were cleared quickly away by police.

Smoke billowed through the elegant 1930s marble hallways of the station, sending people fleeing to the surface, well aware of last year’s attacks at Brussels airport and on the metro, as well as of a string of Islamic State-inspired assaults in France, Germany, Sweden and Britain.

“Such isolated acts will continue in Brussels, in Paris and elsewhere. It’s inevitable,” Brussels security consultant Claude Moniquet, a former French agent, told broadcaster RTL.

With Islamic State under pressure in Syria, he said, attacks in Europe may increase, though many would be by “amateurs”.

Witness Nicolas Van Herrewegen, a rail worker, told Reuters: “He was talking about the jihadists and all that and then at some point he shouted: ‘Allahu akbar’ and blew up the little suitcase he had next to him. People just took off.”

Remy Bonnaffe, a 23-year-old lawyer who was waiting for a train home, photographed the flaming suitcase before the second blast, followed by gunfire, prompted him to run.

“I think we had some luck tonight,” he told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Clement Rossignol, Francesco Guarascio, Jan Strupczewski, Elizabeth Miles and Alastair Macdonald; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Philippines launches offensive in hope of recapturing Marawi by weekend festival

Debris and fire is seen after an OV-10 Bronco aircraft released a bomb, during an airstrike, as government forces continue their assault against insurgents from the Maute group, who have taken over large parts of Marawi City, Philippines June 19, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

By Manuel Mogato and Simon Lewis

MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – Philippine aircraft and troops launched a renewed push against Islamist militants in a southern city on Tuesday and a military spokesman said the aim was to clear the area by the weekend Eid festival, although there was no deadline.

The offensive came amid worry that rebel reinforcements could arrive in the city after Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Fighting in Marawi City has entered a fifth week, and nearly 350 people have been killed, according to an official count. Fleeing residents have said they have seen scores of bodies in the debris of homes destroyed in bombing and cross-fire.

“We are aiming to clear Marawi by the end of Ramadan,” said military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, as army and police commanders met in nearby Cagayan de Oro city to reassess strategy and operations against the militants, who claim allegiance to Islamic State.

But he added: “We are not setting any deadlines knowing the complexity of the battle. We are doing our best to expedite the liberation of Marawi at the soonest time possible.”

The seizure of Marawi and the dogged fight to regain control of it has alarmed Southeast Asian nations which fear Islamic State – on a backfoot in Iraq and Syria – is trying to set up a stronghold in the Muslim south of the mainly Roman Catholic Philippines that could threaten the whole region.

President Rodrigo Duterte visited a school where people who fled from Marawi are being housed and apologized for their plight, especially since it was Ramadan.

“I will help you, I will rehabilitate Marawi, it will be a beautiful city again,” he said at the school in Iligan City, about 40 km (25 miles) from the battle zone.

Padilla said the military aimed to prevent the conflict from escalating after Ramadan ends.

“We are closely watching certain groups and we hope they will not join the fight,” Padilla said.

Some Muslim residents of Marawi said other groups could join the fighting after Ramadan.

“As devout Muslims, we are forbidden to fight during Ramadan so afterwards, there may be new groups coming in,” said Faisal Amir, who has stayed on in the city despite the battle.

Members of the Philippine National Police (PNP) Special Action Force are onboard a PNP vehicle as reinforcements, as government forces continue their assault against insurgents from the Maute group, who have taken over large parts of Marawi City, Philippines June 19, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

Members of the Philippine National Police (PNP) Special Action Force are onboard a PNP vehicle as reinforcements, as government forces continue their assault against insurgents from the Maute group, who have taken over large parts of Marawi City, Philippines June 19, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

‘GAINING GROUND’

Fighting was intense early on Tuesday as security forces made a push to drive the militants, entrenched in Marawi’s commercial district, south toward a lake on the edge of the city.

Planes flew overhead dropping bombs while on the ground, automatic gunfire was sustained with occasional blasts from artillery. Armored vehicles fired volleys of shells while the militants responded with gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades.

Fighting later died down as heavy rain fell but had resumed by evening.

Military sources said troops were attacking the militants from three sides and trying to box them toward the lake.

“We’re gaining ground and we’re expanding our vantage positions,” said Lieutenant Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera, another military spokesman, although he declined to comment on specifics.

“We are moving toward the center of gravity,” he added, referring to the militants’ command and communications center.

An army corporal near the front line told Reuters soldiers were tagging houses and buildings that had been cleared.

“We still have to clear more than 1,000 structures,” he said, adding infantry units were left behind at “cleared” areas to prevent militants from recapturing lost ground.

As of Tuesday, the military said 258 militants, 65 security personnel and 26 civilians had been killed. Hundreds of people are unaccounted for, with many believed to be hiding in the basements of the city.

(For a graphic on battle for Marawi, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2sqmHDf)

(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Nick Macfie)

Champs Elysees attacker stashed weapons, was on French watchlist

Police secure the area near a burned car at the scene of an incident in which it rammed a gendarmerie van on the Champs-Elysees Avenue in Paris, France, June 19, 2017. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

By Emmanuel Jarry and Richard Lough

PARIS (Reuters) – A man who rammed a car into a police van in Paris stored a cache of weapons at his home and held a gun permit despite being on a secret service list of people linked to radical Islam, police sources and French officials said on Tuesday.

A judicial source said investigators were compiling an inventory of the arms and equipment found in the 31-year-old’s home. The man, who died in the attack, was also carrying in his car an assault rifle, two pistols, ammunition and two large gas canisters when he rammed a police convoy on Monday.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the individual first received a permit to possess a gun before he was flagged to intelligence agencies as a potential militant threat. At the time there was no reason to deny him the permit, Philippe said.

Philippe said it was “quite possible” the license was active at the time the attacker was on a security watchlist. Three sources close to the investigation confirmed it was.

“Nobody can be happy, and certainly not me, that someone who has been flagged to security agencies can continue to benefit from such an authorization,” Philippe told BFM TV.

The man was placed on France’s so called ‘Fiche S’ watchlist after he was found to belong to a radical Islamist movement, two police sources said.

Individuals on the list are placed under surveillance though the intensity of that surveillance varies depending on the perceived threat the individual poses.

Philippe said draft legislation drawn up in May envisaged changes to allow officials who handle gun permits to check if individuals seeking licenses are on a watchlist.

ARRESTS

But refusing permits in such cases had it drawbacks, he said. “If you revoke the authorization of someone who is under surveillance, they’re going to know why.”

On Monday, witnesses saw the man being pulled from the car as thick yellow smoke poured out.

Police arrested four of his close relatives in a raid south of Paris late on Monday, a police source said. They included his father and brother.

France has been on high alert after a wave of militant Islamist attacks over the past two years, including most recently an attack on police outside the Notre Dame Cathedral and an Islamic State-claimed attack on police on the Champs Elysees in April.

In July last year, 86 people were killed when a truck plowed through a crowd in Nice, and similar incidents have occurred in other European cities.

Philippe said the government would be presenting a draft law soon to toughen counter-terrorism legislation.

“We need to find legal instruments that at once guarantee that we continue to live in a Fifth Republic which safeguards freedoms and ensure the security of French people,” Philippe said.

(Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier and Brian Love; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

U.S. urges bigger Chinese role to combat global terrorism

China's President Xi Jinping waits to greet Brazil's Foreign Minister Aloysio Nunes (not seen), Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (not seen), South Africa's Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane (not seen) and Indian Minister of External Affairs Vijay Kumar Singh (not seen) as he meets with foreign affairs officials from the BRICS countries at the Great Hall of the PeopleÕs Fujian Room in Beijing on June 19, 2017. REUTERS/Nicolas Asfouri/Pool

By David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States wants China to become more involved in supporting the global fight against terrorism and efforts to defeat Islamic State, including in Iraq, a senior U.S. official said on Monday ahead of high-level security talks with Beijing.

Susan Thornton, the U.S. acting assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said that China has taken only a limited role in counter-terrorism efforts, although it appeared to be becoming more interested.

“We would like to see them step up and take more responsibility,” Thornton told reporters as Washington and China’s diplomatic and defense chiefs prepared for a meeting in the U.S. capital on Wednesday.

“They have a lot of interests, for example in Iraq, and we think they should be doing to more to contribute to the efforts of the international coalition to defeat ISIS (Islamic State),” she said.

Thornton said Beijing, which is not a member of the 68-member coalition, was increasingly affected by terrorism, as was seen by the recent killing of two Chinese nationals in Pakistan.

Beijing has sent out “early feelers” about getting more involved, Thornton said.

“We’d like to have a good discussion with them about what more we think they can do, certainly in the way of providing resources to governments that are battling against terrorism and trying to help with capacity-building for governments and security forces in various places,” she added.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular press briefing in Beijing on Tuesday that China and the United States were both victims of terrorism.

“Cooperation is in the interests of both sides,” he said, without elaborating.

Wednesday’s talks will involve U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis as well as China’s top diplomat, State Councilor Yang Jiechi, and General Fang Fenghui, chief of state of the People’s Liberation Army.

The State Department says they will focus on ways to step up pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile programs, but also cover areas such as counter-terrorism and territorial rivalries in the strategic South China Sea.

The United States has been at odds with China over the latter’s building and fortifying of islands in the disputed waterway.

Thornton said now that there were moves towards agreeing a code of conduct over the South China Sea, Washington would like to see a freeze on all such construction activity.

She reiterated a call on China to fully implement U.N. sanctions on North Korea and, while praising Beijing for imposing a ban on North Korean coal imports, added: “We would like to see China do more.”

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by David Alexander in Washington and Christian Shepherd in Beijing; Editing by Paul Simao and Nick Macfie)

‘He said he was Christian, they shot him,’ says son who saw father die

Hanaa Youssef and Mina Habib, the widow and son of a man who was killed in a militant attack against Coptic Christians last month, hold the victim's portrait in Minya, Egypt June 8, 2017. Picture taken June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

By Ali Abdelaty

DAYR JARNOUS, Egypt (Reuters) – Egyptian schoolboy Mina Habib rarely leaves his house these days. The 10-year-old is still recovering from seeing Islamist gunmen kill his father for being Christian.

In an attack claimed by Islamic State, gunmen ambushed a group of Coptic Christians traveling to a monastery in Minya in southern Egypt last month, killing 29 and wounding 24, with Mina’s father Adel among the dead.

A month later, residents of Dayr Jarnous, a Christian village that was home to seven of those killed, say the government is not providing proper security and has done nothing to help the victims’ families.

Mina is receiving therapy at a local church, in the absence of any treatment from the government. His brother Marco, 14, who also escaped the attack, visits a monastery to read the bible as a form of therapy.

Still shaken, village residents fear they are exposed if there is another attack and want President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to keep his promise to protect Christians. There was no extra security in the village, with only a police point out in the desert where the attack took place.

In one of the first detailed eyewitness accounts of the Minya attack, which has led to retaliatory Egyptian air strikes in Libya, Mina told Reuters it was pure chance that he and Marco were spared.

They were on a pickup truck headed to the monastery of Saint Samuel the Confessor when the militants stopped them.

Ahead, blood-soaked bodies littered the desert road to the monastery and two vehicles had clearly been attacked.

“We saw dead people, just dumped on the ground,” Mina recounted.

“They asked my father for identification then told him to recite the Muslim profession of faith. He refused, said he was Christian. They shot him and everyone else with us in the car.”

Mina said there were around 15 gunmen. He does not know why he and Marco were spared when other children were shot.

“They saw us in the back of the truck. They made us get down and a man wearing camouflage like the army pointed his gun at us, but another one in all black told him to let us go. Every time they shot someone they would yell God is great.”

Marco added: “They had Egyptian accents like us and they were all masked except for two of them … They looked like us and did not have beards.”

LION HEARTED

Three vehicles were attacked. A bus and a car taking children and families to the monastery were the first targets.

The gunmen shot out the windows then killed all the men and fired at the feet of the women and children. They took the women’s gold jewelry, eyewitnesses said. Some children were killed.

When one of the gunmen’s vehicles had a flat tire, they stopped Adel Habib’s truck, which was carrying Christian workers, shot them and took the truck.

Marco stopped a car when the militants left and put Mina in it to get him to safety. When at last he got mobile phone reception on the desert road, Marco called their mother.

“I first thought it was someone trying to take the truck, I never thought it would be terrorism,” said Hanaa Youssef. “My husband has been going to the monastery for 25 years and nothing like this had ever happened.”

Now she keeps her children at home – neighbors have written “Marco and Mina the lion-hearted” on its walls – only letting the boys out for therapy in church. Marco was unavailable for interview; he was at a monastery reading the bible.

“Ever since the accident I am always at home,” said Mina.

“Security, the government, and the army are negligent. No one protects us other than God. It is known that Christians are not protected in this country,” said Kirolos Ishak, a university student whose father was also killed that day.

Coptic Christians, who make up 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 92 million, say they have been persecuted for years. In recent months attacks have increased, leaving about 100 dead.

Egypt’s Copts support Sisi, who has vowed to crush Islamist militants and protect Christians. He declared a three-month state of emergency after church bombings in April.

But many Christians feel the state is failing to protect them.

“Our Muslim neighbors say ‘you chose Sisi’ but ever since he came to power we are the ones who have suffered, not them,” said Youssef, the boys’ mother. “Churches and people have been attacked, people have been kidnapped, we are suffering.”

(Reporting by Ali Abdelaty; Writing by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Three Palestinians killed after attacking Israeli officers

Israeli policemen secure the scene of the shooting and stabbing attack outside Damascus gate in Jerusalem's old city June 16, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli security forces shot dead three Palestinians who carried out shooting and stabbing attacks that critically injured an Israeli border policewoman in Jerusalem on Friday, police said.

The attacks occurred simultaneously in two areas near the Damascus gate of Jerusalem’s walled old city.

At one scene, two Palestinians were shot and killed after opening fire at and trying to stab a group of Israeli police officers, police said. At the other, a Palestinian stabbed a border policewoman, critically wounding her, before being shot dead by police.

A second Israeli officer was also injured in the attacks.

A wave of Palestinian street attacks began in October 2015 but has since slowed. Israel blames the violence on incitement by the Palestinian leadership.

The Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, denies that and says assailants have acted out of frustration over Israeli occupation of land sought by Palestinians in peace talks that have been stalled since 2014.

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

On Boko Haram front line, Nigerian vigilantes amass victories and power

Members of the local militia, otherwise known as CJTF, sit in the back of a truck during a patrol in the city of Maiduguri, northern Nigeria June 9, 2017. Picture taken June 9, 2017. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye.

By Ed Cropley

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) – His broken arm is in a bamboo splint, his torso pock-marked with shrapnel and his jaw wired together by a Nigerian army surgeon.

But 38-year-old vigilante Dala Aisami Angwalla is undaunted by two nearly fatal brushes in the last year with Boko Haram, one involving a landmine, the other an ambush, and is determined to rid northeast Nigeria of the jihadists.

It is a sentiment shared by thousands of other volunteer vigilantes who have been instrumental in checking Boko Haram’s progress but whose presence now casts a shadow over longer-term efforts to bring stability to the troubled Lake Chad region.

“Why do I do it? Because it’s my country,” the father-of-five told Reuters in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state and epicenter of Boko Haram’s bloody, eight-year campaign to build an Islamic caliphate in the southern reaches of the Sahel.

“My children are OK. When I go out, they say ‘Go well, father. May God keep you safe,'” he said, fingering a charm around his neck that he believes keeps him from harm’s way.

Angwalla belongs to the 30,000-strong “Civilian Joint Task Force” (CJTF) now fighting on the front line of Nigeria’s struggle against Boko Haram after helping the military push the Islamists from towns across Borno in the last three years.

Despite a string of victories, the CJTF has drawn criticism.

Rights groups accuse its members of abuses ranging from extortion to rape and say their entry into the fray three years ago may be the reason for a sharp rise in Boko Haram violence against civilians.

CJTF leaders, who say 670 of its “boys” have been killed in action, say bar a “few bad people” its members are registered, impartial and professional.

FEAR OF ARMED GROUPS

The CJTF, most of whom are unemployed men, has asked the government to provide payment for its operations, a demand seen by political observers as ominous given the blurred lines in Nigeria between local politics and orchestrated violence.

With national elections in 2019 and the long-term illness of President Muhammadu Buhari pointing to a power vacuum, fears about organized armed groups are on the rise.

“In Nigeria in particular, vigilantism did much to turn an anti-state insurgency into a bloodier civil war, pitting Boko Haram against communities and leading to drastic increases in violence,” the International Crisis Group, a think-tank, said.

“In the longer term, vigilantes may become political foot soldiers, turn to organized crime or feed communal violence,” it said in a February report.

Few in Nigeria would question the significance of the CJTF’s role against Boko Haram, whose fighters have killed at least 20,000 people and displaced 2.7 million. Aid experts say 1.4 million are on the brink of famine after years without harvests.

Set up as a Sunni fundamentalist group influenced by the Wahhabi movement, Boko Haram has led a violent uprising since 2009. The group, whose name means ‘Western education is forbidden’, has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

CUTLASSES AND ARROWS

Building on Nigeria’s long-standing tradition of communal self-defense, the vigilante group was founded in Maiduguri in 2013 when groups of young men decided they had had enough of the Islamist militants living in their midst.

Their cutlasses, bows and arrows, and rudimentary shotguns were little match for Boko Haram’s modern weaponry, mostly captured in raids on Nigerian army and police positions, but their local knowledge was decisive.

Hundreds of suspected militants were detained by soldiers and police acting on CJTF tip-offs in raids that turned the tide against Boko Haram in Maiduguri, a city of a million established as a military outpost by British colonial authorities in 1907.

“Within one week, we secured the whole center of Maiduguri,” said Abba Aji Kalli, a 51-year-old accountant who is also CJTF’s state-wide coordinator. “The army were strangers but we live with Boko Haram in the same community, in the same neighborhood. We know who are the members of Boko Haram.”

Three years on, the CJTF forms the backbone of Borno’s anti-Boko Haram defenses, attracting the praise of Buhari, who in December declared the Islamist group “technically” defeated.

“They have been of tremendous help to the military because they are from there. They have local intelligence,” Buhari said.

CHEEK-BY-JOWL WITH BOKO HARAM

Now, most day-to-day security in Maiduguri and the refugee camps that surround it falls to black-clad CJTF members patrolling entrances to markets or sitting behind sandbag barricades with machetes, muskets and bows and arrows.

“Without the CJTF, there would be no security at all,” said Tijani Lumwani, head of the 40,000-strong Muna Garage refugee camp, hit by several suicide bombers in March. “They live in the community. We trust them. Without them, we would have no peace.”

Most CJFT vigilantes, including Angwalla, go unrewarded for their efforts, although 1,850 who have received paramilitary training are given a 15,000 naira per month ($48) stipend by the Borno government.

Around 450 have been incorporated into the main security forces and 30 into the intelligence services, group coordinator Kalli said, although he and his colleagues believe that is not enough and want more money and jobs to follow.

Buhari spokesman Femi Adesina said there would be “some sort of demobilization” for CJTF members but denied any obligation to provide jobs. “The CJTF was a voluntary thing. There was no agreement that ‘You do this, and the government will do that.'”

Borno state attorney general Kaka Shehu Lawal said the local government was investing heavily in agriculture and other industrial projects to create jobs for unemployed CJTF members who otherwise had the potential to become trouble-makers.

“We need them not to be idle because an idle man is the devil’s workshop,” Lawal said.

WHAT PRICE PEACE?

However, allegations of CJTF abuses have raised fears among diplomats and rights workers that the counter-insurgency effort has spawned a provincial militia the authorities may not be able to control.

Amnesty International researcher Isa Sanusi said he had credible reports of “widespread” abuses by CJTF guards in Borno, including extorting money from refugees seeking access to camps or sexual favors in exchange for food.

Kalli said a handful of culprits had been arrested.

Rights groups say that if the vigilantes fail to receive what they feel is due to them, they are likely to become another long-term source of instability. “They will come out of this crisis with some kind of entitlement that will make them think they are above the law,” Amnesty’s Sanusi said.

(Reporting by Ed Cropley, editing by Peter Millership)

Philippine politician says residents report scores of bodies in embattled city

Smoke comes from a burning building as government troops continue their assault against insurgents from the Maute group, who have taken over large parts of Marawi city, Philippines June 15, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

By Neil Jerome Morales and Simon Lewis

MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – A Philippines politician said on Thursday residents fleeing besieged Marawi City had seen scores of dead bodies in an area where intense fighting has taken place between security forces and Islamist militants over the past three weeks.

“Dead bodies, at least 100, scattered around the encounter area,” Zia Alonto Adiong, a politician in the area who is helping in rescue and relief efforts, told reporters, referring to accounts he had received from fleeing residents.

The military said it could not confirm the report.

The army has said 290 people have been killed in the more than three weeks of fighting, including 206 militants, 58 soldiers and 26 civilians.

Lieutenant Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera, a military spokesman, said troops were advancing toward the commercial center of Marawi City, which is held by the militants who have sworn allegiance to Islamic State.

“We intend to finish the fight as soon as possible. Our tactical commanders are doing their best,” Herrera said.

But troops still faced up to 200 fighters, many of whom had taken up sniper positions, he said.

“The battlefield is very fluid,” he said.

Earlier, the military said it had arrested a cousin of the top militant commanders leading the Islamists in their fight against the government.

The man, Mohammad Noaim Maute, alias Abu Jadid, was arrested at a checkpoint near the coastal city of Cagayan de Oro just after dawn, Herrera said.

Herrera had earlier identified him as a brother of Omarkhayam and Abdullah Maute, who head the Maute gang that is at the forefront of the battle for Marawi City.

Marawi is about 100 km (60 miles) south of Cagayan de Oro, but it was not clear whether Mohammad was coming from the embattled city.

Most of the seven Maute brothers, including Omarkhayam and Abdullah, are believed to be in Marawi.

Their parents were taken into custody last week in separate cities.

Brigadier-General Gilbert Gapay, spokesman for the military’s Eastern Mindanao Command, said Mohammad Noaim Maute was a suspected bomb-maker for the group.

He said Maute was holding a fake student card of the Mindanao State University, based in Marawi, when stopped at the checkpoint. He was not armed.

Police said Maute, an Arabic-language teacher, readily admitted his identity when questioned.

(Additional reporting by Manny Mogato; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Robert Birsel)