President Rodrigo Duterte declared Marawi city “liberated” on Tuesday, a day after troops killed Isnilon Hapilon, the Filipino leader of the Islamic State (IS) branch in Southeast Asia.
But intermittent explosions reverberated in the background amid somber cheers of joy in the southern Philippine city, as about 30 militant stragglers led by Malaysian Mahmud Ahmad were trying to claw their way out, according to military officials.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I hereby declare Marawi city liberated from terrorist influence that marks the beginning of rehabilitation,” Duterte said in his brief message as he paid a special visit to troops in the war-torn city, while top military and defense officials surrounded him on the stage.
He promised his “beloved soldiers,” many of whom had returned to the frontline despite being wounded earlier, that their sacrifices would not be overlooked.
Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Restituto Padilla said operations in Marawi were approaching their end, but he cautioned troops to not let their guard down.
Padilla said the liberation of Marawi “does not signal the end of the hostilities nor the end of the fighting,” noting that Mahmud was backed by up several foreign fighters who were still holding about 20 hostages, including women and children.
“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 [as] the battle area,” Padilla said, adding that up to 80 structures had yet to be cleared.
Padilla said Duterte’s declaration would “give way to reconstruction” even as he emphasized that troops would working harder to clear the area and recover the remaining hostages.
“Dr. Mahmud remains one of our high-value targets in the operations still being conducted,” he said.
‘We are ready’
Once a professor at the University of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, Mahmud, 39, is the alleged financier of the militants that took over the once-scenic city of 200,000 people. He had trained at al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s while studying at Islamabad Islamic University.
In Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday, Malaysian Police Chief Mohamad Fuzi Harun said authorities in the eastern state of Sabah were on alert to prevent Mahmud or any of his supporters from crossing over by sea from the nearby southern Philippines.
“At the moment, from the information we received, there are five Malaysians in Marawi and the southern part of the Philippines,” he told reporters. “We are always on guard and if they do come back, we are ready.”
In Jakarta, a deputy official of Indonesia’s national counterterrorist agency (BNPT) said authorities in Indonesian Borneo and Indonesian islands off the southern Philippines were also closely monitoring borders in the region.
“[W]e are keeping cautious, especially in the border areas such as North Maluku, North Sulawesi and South East Kalimantan [provinces],” BNPT Inspector-General Arief Darmawan told BenarNews on Tuesday.
Some of the militants still fighting in Marawi were believed to be Indonesians, Arief said without being more specific.
“Most of them are people who have been living in Marawi for a long time. But we don’t have details on their identities,” he said.
He predicted there are some Indonesians join with the terror group in Marawi.
Mahmud not adept at fighting
Padilla belittled Mahmud’s battle capability, calling him an “academic” not adept in fighting like Hapilon, the overall leader of IS in the region, and Omarkhayam Maute, leader of the Maute gang. Both men were killed Monday as troops advanced into rebel-held areas, Philippine officials said.
“His ability to lead the fight is not there,” Padilla said of Mahmud, noting that foreigners, Indonesians and Malaysians, who were still with him were “part of the core group at the forefront of the fight.”
Hapilon, a leader of the local extremist group Abu Sayyaf, had earned a reputation for brutality, including kidnappings and beheadings. In 2001, he organized the kidnapping of 20 hostages, including three Americans, from a southern Philippine beach resort.
Two of the Americans were later killed, an act that led the FBI to put Hapilon on its most-wanted list and offer $5 million for his capture. The third was freed after a year in captivity in the jungles.
Last year, Hapilon emerged as the regional “emir” of IS.
The Marawi fighting began on May 23 when the military moved to arrest Hapilon. But they were surprised by a huge rebel force, including local militants led by brothers Abdullah and Omarkhayam Maute. Abdullah was killed earlier in the battle.
The United States, along with Australia, provided vital intelligence back up to Filipino forces.
“We congratulate our partners in the Armed Forces of the Philippines for their reported success in killing two of the leaders behind the months-long clash in Marawi: Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute,” Molly Koscina, a spokeswoman for the U.S. embassy in Manila, said Tuesday in a statement.
Soldiers walk in the southern Philippine city of Marawi, Oct. 17, 2017. [Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews]
Meanwhile, Philippine military chief Gen. Eduardo Año said the remaining enemy force could no longer be considered a serious threat but a “law-enforcement matter.”
“What remains now is mopping up operations against Maute-ISIS stragglers in a small area,” Año said, using another acronym for IS. “We can now begin the next phase, which is damage assessment, which is part already of rehabilitation and reconstruction.”
He said the Maute brothers and Hapilon were considered as the “centers of gravity” for the local IS fighters.
“When we say center, it’s their strength that pulls the whole organization and their supporters. Now they are gone, the impact is a big debacle in the ISIS state that they are trying to put up in Mindanao,” Año said.
“They cannot find any leader immediately. In fact, what will happen, since they are leaderless, a lot of their followers will abandon their movement. We in the military will not relax and just seat. It will even inspire the armed forces and the police and other law-enforcement agencies to go after the remaining militants and finish them,” he added.
The toll has been staggering in the battle that has lasted nearly five months, with 822 militants and 164 soldiers slain. At least 47 civilians also have been killed.
Felipe Villamor in Manila, N. Nantha in Kuala Lumpur and Tia Asmara in Jakarta contributed to this report.