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Esperon: Maute fighters confined to area near Lake Lanao

President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday went to Marawi City as he faced massive protests in Manila as the country marks 45 years to the day martial law was declared by dictator Ferdinand Marcos. RICHARD MADELO/PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte's most recent visit to Marawi City was an indication that the crisis may soon be over, his national security adviser said, as the main fighting area shrinks further to areas near Lake Lanao.

Duterte went to Marawi City on Thursday to visit troops who had been battling Islamist militants for 123 days now. The visit happened while massive protests were held in the capital over Duterte's alleged complicity in drug-related killings as well as for the commemoration of the 45th year since martial law was declared in the Philippines by ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Martial law was lifted in 1981. In May, Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao in response to the Marawi siege.

The military has also received information that Isnilon Hapilon, the appointed Southeast Asian emir of the so-called Islamic State, is still in the battle area and has not yet escaped as previously reported, according to Esperon.

Hapilon's Abu Sayyaf faction has merged with the Maute Group to stage the most significant terror event to face Southeast Asia in recent years which has killed hundreds of militants, civilians and security personnel and displaced hundreds of thousands of residents of the lakeside town.

According to Esperon, the recent gains by security forces, including the retaking of a mosque at the heart of the city used as headquarters by the militants' leaders and the rescue of hostages, and the travel by land of Duterte to Marawi were signs of the looming end of the most serious security problem to face the administration of the former Davao City mayor.

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He said that he himself had traveled to Marawi by land on two occasions, one in July and another in September, although he was hesitant to allow the president's recent land travel there.

Main battle area now near Lake Lanao

"The main battle area has further been restricted towards Lake Lanao," Esperon said in a media conference in a peace and extremism forum in Manila on Friday.

He however clarified that even if the battle area had shrunk to areas near the lake the Maute fighters will not be able to escape nor get reinforcement or support by boat as security forces are patrolling lake waters.

The national security adviser said that "pretty soon" they would be able to verify what really happened to the group's leadership, especially Hapilon.

When asked to give more specifics on the militant leader's possible condition, Esperon said, "The fighting for the past 123 days would take a toll on anybody."

"We'll leave it at that. The time is coming close when we can make the validations" on their leadership, their operations, according to Esperon.

He said that the military and the government would want to finish the siege of the Islamic town as soon as possible so the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the city, expected to cost the government billions of pesos, could start.

However, the reconstruction of the destroyed houses and structures was just one aspect of the process of recovery for the city. The other more difficult aspect can take decades, according to former President Fidel Ramos.

"More than that it will decades and decades to bring back the old Marawi," he said.

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