ABU Sayyaf leader and the emir of the Islamic State group in Southeast Asia was killed in the battle to reclaim Marawi City, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Monday.
Isnilon Hapilon’s death came during a push to end the four-month siege of Marawi, a battle that has claimed more than 1,000 lives and raised fears that IS was seeking to set up a regional base in Mindanao.
Security analysts say Hapilon, who is on the US “most wanted terrorists” list, has been a key figure in the jihadist organization’s drive to establish a caliphate as they suffer battlefield defeats in Iraq and Syria.
“[Our troops] were able to get Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute. They were both killed,” Lorenzana told reporters, referring to one of the leaders of the Maute group that led the attack with Hapilon on Marawi in May.
“Their bodies have been recovered by our operating units.”
The US government had offered a $5-million bounty for information leading to Hapilon’s arrest, describing the 51-year-old as a senior leader of the Abu Sayyaf group, which the US considers a “foreign terrorist organization.”
Lorenzana said ground forces mounting a final assault on the militants in Marawi killed Hapilon and Omarkhayam Maute, one of two brothers who led an extremist group allied to Hapilon, early Monday.
DNA tests will be carried out on the two bodies because of the reward offer from the US and Philippine governments, he added.
“The implication of this development is that the Marawi incident is almost over and we may announce the termination of hostilities in a couple of days,” Lorenzana said.
The authorities have made several previous announcements on the imminent end of the conflict, but observers believe this time the forecast is likely to be accurate.
Pro-IS gunmen occupied parts of Marawi on May 23 following a foiled attempt by security forces to arrest Hapilon, authorities said.
The military says Hapilon joined forces with the Maute group to plan the rampage.
Since then more than 1,000 people have been killed and 400,000 residents displaced.
Military officials last month said other militant leaders, including Omar’s brothers, had been killed in the battle for Marawi.
Troops were still pursuing Malaysian militant leader Mahmud Ahmad in the Marawi battle zone, Lorenzana said on Monday.
The insurgents have withstood a relentless US-backed bombing campaign and intense ground battles with troops that have left large parts of Marawi in ruins.
Troops identified Hapilon and Maute’s location on Sunday based on information from a hostage who had escaped, Lorenzana said.
Hapilon’s death signaled rehabilitation of the city would begin soon, the presidential palace said.
“We will put our efforts and energies on the challenging task of rebuilding and rehabilitating Marawi,” Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella said.
Hapilon is believed to have been involved in 2001 kidnappings of three Americans, two of whom were later killed.
Aside from Hapilon and Maute, government troops found five bodies after the early morning assault on terrorist positions.
Armed Forces chief Gen. Eduardo Año said the objective of the attack was to free the hostages. A heavy firefight lasting four hours, from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., ensued.
Año said the assault would continue until the last Maute group member is neutralized and the last hostage is freed.
With Hapilon and Maute dead, Año said the ISIS-inspired terrorist group was finished.
“This is the end of this Maute group,” Año said in Filipino. “This was their center of gravity. Everything will crumble now.”
The Palace on Monday hailed the deaths of Hapilon and Maute as a “clear victory against terrorism” as it lauded the military for their success in ending the crisis.
“We look forward to raising Marawi from the ashes of conflict and building in a new era where people from the farthest reaches of this Republic can share in the boon of progress,” Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said.
Andanar added that this demonstrates the Duterte administration’s resoluteness “in delivering on its promise of peace and prosperity to the people of Mindanao.”
“Despite the criticisms of his detractors, President Duterte pushed on an unrelenting campaign to take back Marawi City through all means at his disposal.”
The head of the Marawi Crisis Management Committee, meanwhile, said the government can expect more Maute fighters to surrender, following the deaths of their leaders.
“We can expect that this will weaken their positions in the main battle area,” said Zia Alonto Adiong in an interview with GMA News TV.
Alonto said the end of the conflict would help affected residents begin their recovery.
“Imagine for more than four months, our evacuees have been living in evacuation centers. Some of them no longer have a source of income. This is a good sign,” Adiong said.
Radio dzBB reported that 17 hostages were rescued during the operation and were being debriefed.
Senators welcomed news of the death of Hapilon and Maute, but Senator Gregorio Honasan said the battle for hearts and minds is not won by body count.
“To fight terrorism, insurgency, seccession, injustice, oppression, and deeper forms of violence, we need good government delivery of basic services, food, clothing, shelter, education, and health to begin with,” he said.
“We can then proceed with the more difficult part after a post-conflict needs assessment: spearheaded by local governments, sustained rebuilding reconstruction, rehabilitation of lives, homes, communities and the entire nation,” he added.
Senator Antonio Trillanes IV lauded the military for neutralizing Maute leaders and expressed hope this would signify the end of the siege.
He noted that this decisive victory was a fitting honor to soldiers, both fallen and living, who bravely fought in this campaign.
Senator Francis Pangilinan said the deaths of the two terrorist leaders was significant because they were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of soldiers.
Senator Sherwin Gatchalian said he hoped the killing of the group leaders would be the finishing blow that brings war in Marawi to an end. With Macon Ramos-Araneta
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