With more than 1,000 dead and after nearly five months of fighting, Marawi City is free from the stranglehold of terrorists.
President Rodrigo Duterte declared the liberation of Marawi on Oct. 17 following the deaths of the top two Islamist State-linked terrorist leaders who attacked the city.
Duterte made the announcement during his seventh visit to troops in the war-torn city.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I hereby declare Marawi City liberated from the terrorist influence that marks the beginning of the rehabilitation of the city,” Duterte told government troops who fought the Maute group. “My problem now is the many wounded. Some are injured and heavily wounded. I can guarantee you. I am telling you, no one will be left behind. Everyone will have a place.”
With Duterte were Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Armed Forces Chief Eduardo Año.
Isnilon Hapilon, leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group who is on the United States’ most wanted list of terrorists, and Omarkhayam Maute were killed in military operations on Oct. 16. The two led a series of attacks in Marawi after government troops tried but failed to serve an arrest warrant against Hapilon in May.
Inspired by ISIS, the Maute group set out to establish a province in the southern Philippines with Hapilon as emir.
This act of rebellion prompted Duterte to declare martial law in Mindanao. Congress extended the proclamation until the end of 2017.
In a statement released following Duterte’s declaration, Año said the “small number” of the remaining terrorists could now be considered a “law enforcement matter.”
“[It] does not constitute serious threat to hinder the succeeding phases of national government programs. What remains now is mopping up operations against Maute-ISIS stragglers in a small area,” Año said.
“We can now begin the next phase which is damage assessment which is part already of rehabilitation and reconstruction [phase of Marawi City],” he added.
During the “Mindanao Hour” news briefing on Oct. 17, military spokesman Maj. Gen. Restituto Padilla Jr. said Hapilon and Maute’s deaths did not mean that lawless acts in Marawi City have ended, noting that around 20 individuals were still held hostage by the terrorists.
“Our operations in Marawi continue to progress positively and the successful operations conducted yesterday early dawn was one of the most positive developments that we have ever had in the last number of months. But this does not signal the end of the hostilities nor the end of the fighting in Marawi because there still remains to this date a space occupied by armed elements and the existence of hostages,” he said.
According to Padilla, there are around 20 local and foreign pro-Islamic fighters left in the battle area, including financier Dr. Mahmud Ahmad, who is considered by the military as a high-value target.
He said Mahmud topped the list of six to eight foreigners who had joined the ISIS-linked terror group and were still alive.
“There also is still in existence about 20 to 30 armed elements, stragglers if you may call them…And among these are about six to eight foreigners, foreign terrorists to include the notorious foreign national, a Malaysian, by the name of Dr. Mahmud who was the financier of the Marawi siege,” Padilla said.
Security officials have considered Mahmud as the local extremists’ financier and recruiter who helped them have a direct link with the IS group and laid siege to Marawi.
The military spokesman said the government was not discounting the possibility that Mahmud could be anointed as the next extremist leader in Marawi.
“On the issue of leadership, we are not sure if Dr. Mahmud would be designated [as the next leader of the terror group in Marawi]. We will know in the next few days, based on the developments,” Padilla said. “That’s why our goal in our continuing operation in other parts of Marawi is to hunt him down and his other accomplices.”
Meanwhile, Malacañang appealed to the remaining terrorists to cease fighting and instead come back to the “road of peace.”
“With terrorist leaders gone, we call on all fighters to cease further resistance and violence and return to the road of peace,” Palace spokesman Ernesto Abella said during a news conference.
“This is also the call of our Muslim leaders, our imams, ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao), MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front), MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) chiefs, and the leaders of Muslim nations and this is the plea of your families, friends, and communities. Let us restore peace and rebuild our land,” he added.
The Palace official assured the public that the military would intensify its efforts to hunt down other terror organizations in the country.
“We commend our forces for their battlefield advances now nearing total victory. Hundreds of hostages were saved with no violations of rights and religion,” Abella said.
“This has laid a strong foundation for peace and recovery. We will intensify offensives across Mindanao to counter further attacks and to wipe out ISIS cells seeking to exploit people’s grievances for evil,” he added, using another name for IS.
As of Oct. 16, the death toll in Marawi crisis has risen to 1,057, including 847 Islamist terrorists, 163 security troops, and 47 civilians.
Vice President Maria Leonor Robredo called on all Filipinos to “come together to move our country forward towards a peaceful, prosperous and secure future.”
“This is the time to channel our time and harness our energies to restore normalcy in the war-torn city and serve people’s aspirations for a comfortable life for all,” she said in a statement.
“The declaration of [the President]marks the beginning of the recovery, reconstruction, and rehabilitation of Marawi. Our ground commanders will determine if it is safe for residents to return to the city as there may still be traps and unexploded ordnance in some areas. We will defer to their assessment and await their recommendation,” she added.
On Tuesday, the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) said it was ready to start the immediate rehabilitation of Marawi as soon as government forces have taken full control of the city.
“We have ordered all engineers concerned to prioritize the assessment of the area and make sure that all necessary procedures are taken cared of even before the on-ground rehabilitation starts,” DPWH chief Mark Villar said.
Villar issued the order following the arrival at the Port of Iligan of 47 sets of heavy equipment donated by China for the recovery phase of the devastated Islamic city.
©2017 The Manila Times (Manila, Philippines). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.