MANILA—Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared Marawi City liberated from pro-ISIS terrorists on Tuesday. The terrorists had held the heart of the city for 148 days, media and a government minister said.
A military spokesman said 20-30 rebels were still fighting it out and were holding about 20 hostages.
Duterte was visiting Marawi, a day after two leaders of the rebel alliance were killed.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I hereby declare Marawi City liberated from the terrorist influence that marks the beginning of rehabilitation of the city,” Duterte said in a statement to the soldiers in the city.
Isnilon Hapilon, ISIS’s “emir” in Southeast Asia, and Omarkhayam Maute, one of two “Khalifas” at the helm of the Dawla Islamiya terrorist alliance, were killed in a targeted operation on Oct 16 and their bodies had been recovered and identified, authorities said.
The 148-day occupation by ISIS terrorists marked the country’s biggest internal security crisis in years.
Experts say the government has for years underestimated the extent to which extremism has taken root in impoverished and underdeveloped Muslim areas of the Catholic-majority Philippines.
During an earlier interview aired on Phillipines state-run PTV4 Oct. 13, Duterte said, “We tried our very best to end this war peacefully. We never had the intention to destroy the holy shrines of the Islam… It’s easy to destroy the mosques, just drop a hundred bombs and it’s done [but] you know, we have to be very careful about the sensitivity of the people,” he added.
Military spokesman Restituto Padilla said that although the fight was not completely over, the remaining terrorists were “stragglers” who no longer posed a threat.
“There is no way that they can get out anymore, there is no way for anyone to get in,” Padilla told news channel ANC.
“So choking them to death at this point will be very key for our troops to do since the area is very much contained and very much controlled.”
Padilla said Malaysian operative Mahmud Ahmad had been in Marawi City since the start of the fight and the military believed he was still there. The authorities could not be completely certain, however, but saw him as no threat.
“Dr. Mahmud is an academic, he’s not a fighter,” Padilla said. “We don’t feel he is a problem.”
Some security experts say Mahmud, 39, a skilled recruiter and fundraiser who trained at an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, is a candidate to replace Hapilon as ISIS’s point-man in Southeast Asia.