PH military exercising caution vs. Maute child soldiers in Marawi

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 10) — The military said on Monday it is exercising caution in fighting against children who are in the enemy frontlines in Marawi City.

Armed Forces of the Philippines Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said government troops are receiving "narratives from escapees that children are being employed in the firefight." The escapees refer to hostages who were able to flee from the ISIS-linked Maute group in the past seven weeks of fighting.

He said the military and police on the ground are doing all they can to avoid casualties among the minors who are with the Maute group.

"Disturbing as it is, our troops are doing their best to avoid any casualty among these children that are being employed. But if in the event that they are armed and are involved in the fighting, there's nothing much that we can do," Padilla said in a news briefing on the crisis in Marawi City, which is now on its eighth week.

"When our soldiers' lives are at risk, they take appropriate measures to defend themselves," he added.

Of the 80 Maute fighters battling government troops in Marawi City, there are children and 30 foreigners, Padilla said. He did not have an exact figure for the number of children.

But Padilla said if they can rescue a minor who is fighting for the enemy, they will spare them. 

"Every time we have an opportunity to rescue a child or an individual who is being forced into the fight, we will do that," he said.

"Sa mga bakbakan, 'pag may nasugatan, at nakita mong bata 'yan, tutulungan kaagad-agad 'yan. At hindi po kami nagmamadaling barilin ang batang tumatakbo maski may dalang armas. Kung kakayanin natin idi-disable lang, pero hindi siya papatayin," Padilla added.

[Translation: In firefights, if there are wounded children, we will immediately help them. We will not shoot at a child even if he is carrying arms. If we can disable them, we will, but we will not kill them.]

The Philippines is a signatory to the United Nations' Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. It says that "states will demobilize anyone under 18 conscripted or used in hostilities and will provide physical, psychological recovery services and help their social reintegration. Armed groups distinct from the armed forces of a country should not, under any circumstances, recruit or use in hostilities anyone under 18."

Padilla said minors, mostly teenagers, are seen in videos and photos being trained by Maute members. Several photos and videos of children bearing arms said to have been taken in Marawi City have been circulating on social media.

"So itong mga minors na ito ay maaaring kamag-anak nila o mismong anak nung mga ibang miyembro ng grupong ito… Pero hindi natin masasabi kung maaaring ang ibang hostages na mga minors ay pinupwersa rin nila," he said.

[Translation: These minors can possibly be their relatives or children of Maute members. But we cannot say if the hostages who are minors are also being forces to fight.]

Padilla also said that aside from child militants, the Maute group also forces its hostages to fight.

Authorities report 379 terrorists have been killed by the government troops since the Marawi crisis broke on May 23.

Maute child recruit promised gov't work, P15K monthly

CNN Philippines on Monday interviewed a 17-year-old former Maute member who says he was recruited in the town of Piagapo in Lanao Del Sur in 2012 when he was 12 years old.

"Benjie" (not his real name), said he was recruited by three foreigners and a Maranao with the promise he will be trained by the Philippine Army and paid P15,000 monthly. Part of the training involved self-defense, learning the Arabic language, and how to handle torture if they are captured.

"Basta kumukuha sila ng mga bata, hindi nila sinasabi na, sinasama ka nila sa kampo nila. Hindi nila sinasabi na Daulah Islamiyah sila. Sinasabi nila na mga Army. Kung nagte-training kayo ng Army, pumunta kayo dito," he said.

"Benjie" said around 40 children, as young as seven years old, were in the training camp.

He said he was there for only two months before escaping after he found out they were not being trained by the military.

When the Marawi crisis began on May 23, Benjie, now 17, was recognized by a certain Abdul Jabar Maute Usman, who was bearing a firearm. Benjie said he followed orders to bring food to members of Maute in the conflict area.

Benjie recalled he was offered P50,000 to carry a firearm and start fighting for the terror group by one of the Maute leaders, Abdullah, but he refused.

He said he escaped from the Maute group on May 30. Benjie is now in the custody of the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

He told CNN that his last contact with the group was on June 2, when he was told that the other child soldiers were taken to Butig, Lanao Del Sur through Lake Lanao. Butig, a location of a Maute training camp, was the scene of a gunbattle between government troops and Maute fighters on November 2016.

CNN Philippines' Gerg Cahiles contributed to this report.