Philippines declares pro-Islamic State militants in Marawi ‘finished’

AP, AFP-JIJI

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana declared the last of the pro-Islamic State group militants in southern Marawi city “finished” on Monday, exactly five months after the start of the siege that sparked fears of the group gaining a foothold in Southeast Asia.

Speaking at an annual meeting of Southeast Asian defense ministers, Lorenzana told reporters that troops had recovered 42 bodies of the last group of militants.

“Those are the last group of stragglers of Mautes and they were caught in one building so there was a firefight, so they were finished,” he said.

Two security officials had told media earlier Monday that troops had found the bodies after capturing the building where the militants made their final stand.

Lorenzana said the last hostages the militants had been holding were recovered earlier. “There are no more militants inside Marawi City,” he said.

The siege had sparked fears the Islamic State group would influence and strengthen local militancies while losing ground in Syria and Iraq. The defeat of the IS-linked uprising and the deaths of its leaders have been a relief to the region.

Fighting terrorism is high on the agenda of the Southeast Asian defense ministers’ meeting at the Clark Freeport Zone north of Manila. As the meetings opened, the head of the Brunei delegation expressed condolences for the loss of lives in Marawi but congratulated the Philippines for being able to liberate the city.

Hundreds of militants, many waving Islamic State group-style black flags, launched the siege on May 23 in Marawi — a bastion of Islamic faith in the south of the largely Roman Catholic Philippines — by seizing the lakeside city’s central business district and outlying communities. They ransacked banks and shops, including gun stores, looted houses and smashed statues in a Roman Catholic cathedral, according to the military.

The fighting has left at least 1,131 people dead, including 919 militants and 165 soldiers and police. At least 1,780 of the hostages seized by the militants, including a Roman Catholic priest, were rescued. The final group of 20 captives were freed overnight, Army Col. Romeo Brawner said at a news conference Sunday. That left the gunmen with none of the hostages they had used as human shields to slow the military advance for months.

The disastrous uprising, which has displaced hundreds of thousands of Marawi residents, erupted as the Philippines was hosting annual summit meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this year, along with the 10-nation bloc’s Asian and Western counterparts including the United States and Australia. The two governments have deployed surveillance aircraft and drones to help Filipino troops rout the Marawi militants.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Monday praised the Philippines for its successes in battling Islamic State supporters, as he began an Asian trip aimed at reaffirming American support for regional allies.

Mattis echoed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s statement last week that Filipino forces had “liberated” the southern city of Marawi, after five months of bitter urban fighting that had claimed more than 1,000 lives, even though battles have continued.

“One of the first things I’m going to do when I get there is commend the Philippine military for liberating Marawi from the terrorists,” Mattis told reporters on the flight to the Philippines, according to an official transcript.

“It was a very tough fight as you know in southern Mindanao (the local region). And I think the Philippine military sends a very strong message to the terrorists.”

Mattis flew to the Philippines to attend a meeting hosted by Southeast Asian defense ministers at the former American military base of Clark, two hours’ drive north of Manila.

The Philippines is a former U.S. colony and the two nations are bound by a mutual defense treaty. But relations have soured under Duterte as he has sought to build closer ties with China and Russia.

Last week, troops killed the final two surviving leaders of the Marawi siege, including Isnilon Hapilon, who is listed among the FBI’s most-wanted terror suspects in the world, and Omarkhayam Maute. Following their deaths, Duterte traveled near the main scene of battle and declared Marawi had been essentially liberated.

DNA tests performed in the United States on request of the Philippine military have confirmed the death of Hapilon, according to the U.S. Embassy in Manila. Washington has offered a bounty of up to $5 million for Hapilon, who had been blamed for kidnapping American nationals for ransom and terrorist attacks.

Among the foreign militants believed to be with the remaining gunmen in Marawi were Malaysian militant Amin Baco and an Indonesian known only as Qayyim. Both have plotted attacks and provided combat training to local militants for years but have eluded capture in the south.

Lorenzana said Monday the identities of the final 42 bodies had not been determined and that some were beyond recognition.