Philippine troops have killed five top Islamic State-linked militants in Marawi, including Abdullah Maute, but Isnilon Hapilon and Omarkhayam Maute are still holed up with the remaining combatants in the southern city, officials said Friday.
Abdullah and his lesser-known brothers Madhi and Utto were killed together with two foreign fighters during recent clashes in Marawi, according to Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez, the regional military chief. Galvez did not identify the foreigners.
Galvez made the announcement four days after voicing optimism that the Marawi gun battles would be over in “10 days or two weeks.”
Abdullah and his brother Omarkhayam were the leaders of the Maute gang, a ragtag band of militants who backed Abu Sayyaf chief Isnilon Hapilon – the acknowledged commander of the IS in the region – when his forces took over Marawi city on May 23.
“Our report was that Abdullah, Madhi and Utto were killed along with two foreigners,” Galvez told reporters. “This is judgment day for them. Our troops are now pushing hard. I believe some of the Maute members are very desperate.”
It was not clear whether the five militant leaders were among 16 cadavers recovered by soldiers Thursday from the rubble of Marawi’s frontline.
Galvez said police had collected DNA samples from each of those cadavers to ascertain their identities. He would not say what his basis was for announcing the Maute deaths.
The military had erroneously reported in June that Omarkhayam Maute had died, only to retract that statement.
Hapilon, who is on Washington’s list of most-wanted terrorists, was believed still in command of the remaining militants, estimated by officials to number between to 45 and 80, along with several foreign fighters, in the battle zone.
"So our initial findings, Omar and Hapilon were the two defending the positions," Galvez said Friday.
Close to ending?
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier said the fighting was close to ending. On Thursday, troops intercepted a small number of militants who were believed to be trying to reinforce the Marawi militants through the porous borders of Lake Lanao.
Fighting was still raging in that area, and there were fears the fighting could spill over to other Muslim areas in the south, officials said.
With the latest development on the ground, Galvez expressed hope that the military would soon recover a substantial portion of the 10 hectares (24.7 acres) still controlled by the militants.
“In the next three days, we believe that we will have substantial results because for the past two weeks, we have a major breakthrough in terms of enemy killed and recovered firearms,” Galvez said.
At least 736 enemy fighters, 153 government forces and 47 civilians had been killed in fighting during the past four months, the presidential palace said Friday.
More than 1,700 civilians trapped in the fighting or taken hostage had been rescued, and a cache of unexploded homemade bombs and more than 700 firearms had also been recovered from slain militants, officials said.
Col. Romeo Brawner, deputy commander of the military’s task force in the area, said ground troops had also seized six sacks of coins used by Maute militants as components for their homemade bombs.
“They are using it as shrapnel. There are instances our troops were hit by coins,” Brawner said, adding that the coins were part of currencies looted by the gunmen from local banks.
Toll on evacuees
The fighting has emptied Marawi of its more than 200,000 residents, with thousands now sheltering with relatives and in packed evacuation camps.
Supplies have not yet run dry, and donations keep coming in. But officials said health and sanitary conditions were fast deteriorating.
Health officials said that at least 56 evacuees had died of various illnesses in the camps, nine of them infants born in the squalor.
Dr. Alinader Minalao, the provincial health administrator, said that based on their records, many of those who had died perished from complications related to pneumonia, severe dehydration and heart diseases.
Richel V. Umel contributed to this report.