PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte declared Marawi City free from Islamic State-inspired terrorists Tuesday after more than 148 days of fighting, even as the military said some 20 to 30 militant fighters remained.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I hereby declare Marawi City liberated from the terrorist influence,” Duterte said in a rain-soaked speech to troops, ending one of the country’s biggest internal security crises in years. Now, he added, the rehabilitation of Marawi could begin.
State forces have been battling the Maute group terrorists and Abu Sayyaf bandits since they overran the city in May. More than 1,000 combatants and civilians have died, and more than 400,000 residents fled their homes as fighting in the provincial capital of Lanao del Sur left what was once regarded as a center of finance and education in ruins.
Duterte announced an end to the hostilities after the military killed Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, regarded as the “emir” of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia, and Omarkhayam Maute, one of two brothers who led the terrorists that overran the city.
While hostilities in other parts of Mindanao continue, the threat of IS militants in the Philippines is already over, a senior military official said Tuesday.
“[The] declaration of the liberation of Marawi is a strategic statement, meaning it’s a message that we want to tell the world, that the Maute-ISIS problem is over,” said Col. Romeo Brawner, deputy commander of the Joint Task Group Ranao in a TV interview. “They cannot be victorious anymore. It’s about to be over.”
Military spokesperson Maj. Gen. Restituto Padilla said that while sporadic fighting continued in Marawi, terrorists no longer have the power to further launch attacks against state forces.
“As we speak, our troops have remained in the battle area continuing to pursue the armed elements and seeking to rescue the remaining hostages in about two hectares of space that remains to be the battle area,” Padilla said in a Palace news briefing.
He said there were still 20 to 30 militants left in Marawi, including six to eight foreign fighters. Among them were Mahmud Ahmad, the suspected Malaysian financier of the Marawi siege.
There were also about 20 hostages left, including women and children, he said.
Residents could not yet return to their homes because of the dangers that remain.
“There is a need to clear all these buildings of all unexploded ordnance as well as IEDs that may have been left by these retreating terrorists,” Padilla said.
He added that there were still about 60 to 80 buildings that needed to be cleared.
Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella urged the remaining terrorists holed up in Marawi City to lay down their arms to “restore peace and rebuild our land.”
“With terrorist leaders gone, we call on all fighters to cease further resistance and violence and return to the road of peace,” Abella said.
“This is also the call of our Muslim leaders, our imams, ARMM, MNLF, MILF chiefs, and the leaders of Muslim nations and this is the plea of your families, friends, and communities,” he added.
Armed men took over vital installations in Marawi City, including schools, hospitals, mosques and commercial establishments on May 23, replacing the Philippine flag with a black flag of the Islamic State, in a bid to declare a caliphate in Southeast Asia, amid battleground losses in Syria and Iraq.
Duterte, who was in Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin at the time, declared martial law in Mindanao the same day.
Martial law in Mindanao was supposed to lapse on July 22 in line with the 60-day limit under the Constitution, but Congress granted Duterte’s request for an extension until the end of this year to quell the rebellion.
At the end of the Marawi siege, some 847 terrorists were killed, along with 47 civilians and 163 government troopers.
Some 846 firearms were recovered, along with various bombs and improvised explosive devices.
Brawner said the military would take out the stragglers soon.
“We are going to get them very soon. We’re making sure no hostages and fighters are left,” he said.
Asked by reporters if Duterte’s declaration was symbolic, Brawner said: “Yes, because we cannot really say that [the area] is 100 percent cleared because even when they declared the end of World War II, there were still stragglers.”
Padilla, meanwhile, said Duterte’s declaration was issued as a “go signal” for the start of Marawi’s rehabilitation.
Troops were hunting down Mahmud, who was among six to eight foreign fighters in the battle zone comprising about 60 to 80 buildings.
“Mahmud remains... one of our high-value targets in the operations being conducted,” Padilla said.
Terrorism expert Ahmad Kumar Ramakrishna from Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies said if Mahmud Ahmad survived he would likely take over the leadership of IS-linked fighters in Mindanao.
The militant is also reported to be a university lecturer in his home country who was in charge of raising finances from abroad for the jihadists and recruitment.
On Tuesday, the military said it raised the alert level in a part of Mindanao as it warned against retaliatory attacks from sympathizers of the militants.
The United States, a longtime defense ally of the Philippines, vowed on Tuesday to support the military’s final push in Marawi.
“The US Government will continue to work with the Armed Forces of the Philippines in the final phases of this operation, and looks forward to cooperating in assuring the stabilization and rehabilitation of Marawi,” US embassy press attache Molly Koscina said.
The President said the liberation of Marawi was not a cause for celebration because of the loss of lives and the destruction of the city.
In a speech at Pili, Camarines Sur, Duterte said there was no other way.
“I just came from Marawi and by the grace of God, we have restored peace. But that could not be a cause for a celebration because we have destroyed in the process the city, which I admit, because we had to do it,” the President said.
“The circumstances compelled us to act, just as we did. It’s now liberated, except for a few pockets of resistance,” he added.
In a statement, the US embassy’s Koscina said they could not confirm if the $5-million reward for Hapilon had been paid.
“The department generally does not release information whether or to whom a reward has been paid. A key aspect of this program is that we ensure that responses to our reward offers are kept strictly confidential,” Koscina said. With Sara Susanne D. Fabunan
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