The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia agreed on Thursday to pool intelligence and tackle militant financing as fears grow that protracted fighting in a southern Philippine town could be the prelude to an attempt by Daesh to infiltrate the region.
Foreign ministers and defence officials of the three neighbouring countries agreed to work together to share information, track communications and crack down on the flow of arms, fighters and money, amid what experts says is the biggest security threat facing Southeast Asia in decades.
Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have already launched joint patrols to control the movement of militants in response to the May 23 attack on Marawi City in the Philippines.
Pro-Daesh militants have been cornered in Marawi City on southern Mindanao island. The battle is now in its fifth week, although the Philippine military says the insurgents' firepower is diminishing. The military says it hopes to secure the whole city before Sunday.
Southeast Asian governments are worried that the success of the pro-Daesh Maute group in Marawi City could be a prelude to further violence as Daesh tries to establish a footing in the region.
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.
These “wanted” insurgent militants are leaders of two pro-Daesh groups. They are Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of the Abu Sayyaf group and Abdullah Maute of the Maute brothers. Members of the eponymous Maute group accounted for a large number of the estimated 400-500 fighters who overran part of the city in late May, killing Christians and taking dozens of civilians hostage.
Marawi City militants diminished
Philippine military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera said on Thursday the number of militants holding out in Marawi City had diminished to "a little over 100."
Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Tampus said, "Their area has been reduced to 1 kilometre 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 said the militants were still using snipers who were firing from "strategic nests" in schools and mosques. He said homemade bombs were hampering the progress of Philippine troops as they advanced house by house.
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.