The Philippines ended a five-month long security crisis with a final assault Monday on a building held by pro-Islamic State (IS) fighters in Marawi, killing 42 militants, including five foreigners, government officials said.
The siege of the southern Philippine city launched by IS-linked militants on May 23 left 1,132 enemy combatants, soldiers and civilians dead, flattened buildings and displaced more than 200,000 residents, officials said.
“We now announce the termination of all combat operations in Marawi,” Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said at Clark freeport, a former U.S. air base north of Manila, where defense ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) were meeting.
“There are no more militants inside Marawi,” he said, adding that the Philippines would cooperate with other ASEAN countries and its partners in strengthening anti-terrorism capabilities.
Lorenzana's announcement coincided with the start of the two-day meeting of ASEAN defense ministers, attended by U.S. defense chief Jim Mattis and his Australian counterpart, Marise Payne. Both countries had lent aerial surveillance support to the Philippine military campaign in Marawi, about 1,170 km (730 miles) south of the country's capital Manila.
“In crushing thus far the serious attempt to export violent extremism and radicalism in the Philippines and in the region, we have contributed to preventing its spread in Asia and gave our share to maintaining global peace, stability and security,” Lorenzana said.
The military assaulted the building where the enemy stragglers had dug in, leading to close-quarter combat that left 42 gunmen dead, he said. He did not say how many soldiers were killed.
He said the slain militants comprised the “last group” of fighters in Marawi, a week after President Rodrigo Duterte declared the city liberated from enemy fighters.
The announcement came a week after the military confirmed the killing of Isnilon Hapilon, the Filipino IS leader in Southeast Asia, and Omarkhayam Maute, one of two brothers who helped him stage the siege. That was followed shortly by the killing of top Malaysian militant Mahmud Ahmad, although his body has not yet been recovered.
Officials have not identified the five foreigners, but Malaysian militant Amin Baco and an Indonesian known only as Qayyim were believed to be among them.
On Saturday, U.S. officials said a DNA test concluded that Hapilon was indeed killed, closing the chapter on one of the FBI’s most wanted militants blamed for a series of atrocities, including kidnappings, beheadings and bombings for much of the past two decades.
Philippine marines aboard their truck flash the victory sign as they start pulling out from the main battle area in the southern city of Marawi, Oct. 19, 2017. [AFP]
Col. Romeo Brawner Jr., deputy commander of the local military task force, told reporters in Marawi that the final assault did not come without a price. The mutilated bodies of two missing soldiers were found on Sunday.
“Sad to note that one soldier was burned and the other head was cut off when we recovered them,” Brawner said. He did not provide details.
Since fighting erupted on May 23, about 920 militants had been killed while 165 government forces perished, Brawner said. Forty-seven civilians were slain by the militants, but soldiers had rescued 1,780 civilians, he said.
“We are trying to recover the cadavers of enemies left in the last building that was used as stronghold of the [militants],” Brawner said.
Lt. Gen. Rolando Joselito Bautista, Philippine Army chief, pins a Special Forces badge to the graduates of Special Forces and Scout Rangers after five months of fighting against Islamic State militants in Marawi city, Oct. 23, 2017. [Richel V. Umel/BenarNews]
For Soraya Alonto Adiong, governor of Lanao del Sur province that includes Marawi, Monday marked a milestone, even though the city has been flattened and resembles the bombed-out cities of Raqqa and Mosul in the Middle East.
“Today we begin to see the light behind the tunnel,” he said. “And most importantly, today we achieved a great victory.”
Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.