Firearms and battle gear are seen on the ground as soldiers take a break in Bangolo, Marawi City hours after combat operations were declared terminated yesterday. KRIZJOHN ROSALES                                                                  

‘Combat terminated’
Michael Punongbayan (The Philippine Star) - October 23, 2017 - 4:00pm

42 terrorists killed in final Marawi battle

MANILA, Philippines — After five months of fighting and over 1,000 dead, the campaign to retake Marawi from militants professing allegiance to the Middle East-based Islamic State (IS) is now officially over with 42 terrorists – including two women and five foreigners – killed in the final battle, the defense department and the military announced yesterday.

The campaign gave security forces their first taste of urban warfare, which often involved close-quarters combat. But in the end, even the fanaticism and the vast supply of weapons and munitions of the IS-linked Maute group and Abu Sayyaf turned out to be no match to the superior arms and discipline of government forces, authorities said.

A victory for the militants would have transformed the country’s only Islamic city into the capital of a “caliphate” the IS envisioned for Southeast Asia.

“The Philippine security forces, aided by the government and the massive support of the Filipino people, have nipped the budding infrastructure and defeated terrorism in the Philippines,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana declared in a speech at the 11th ASEAN Defense Minister’s Meeting in Clark, Pampanga yesterday.

“In crushing thus far the most 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.

At Malacañang, presidential spokesman Eduardo Abella said the end of hostilities calls for greater unity, considering the “enormous” and “challenging” task of rebuilding Marawi.

“The damage to Marawi’s infrastructure and private properties and the displacement of thousands of residents require the government’s unified and comprehensive effort; thus, we call on all our citizens to come together to move our country forward towards a peaceful, prosperous and secure future,” Abella said in a statement.

“The defeat of the Daesh-inspired Maute group likewise underscores our singleness of purpose in the global war against terrorism,” he added, while praising troops – including the fallen ones – for their “courage, gallantry and sacrifice.”

The government’s declaring the Marawi crisis over came a week after members of the Army’s elite Scout Rangers killed siege leaders Abu Sayyaf chief Isnilon Hapilon and the acknowledged head of the Maute group Omarkhayam Maute in a pre-dawn encounter on Oct. 16. Also killed days later was Malaysian doctor Mahmud bin Ahmad, the terrorists’ alleged financier and possible successor as leader of the group.

The Marawi siege, according to authorities, began on May 23 when heavily armed militants assembled in the city to prevent authorities from serving a warrant of arrest on Hapilon. The militants eventually took over government and private buildings and prevented civilians from leaving, taking hostage many of them. The militants also killed Christians and unsympathetic Muslims. The siege prompted President Duterte to place the entire Mindanao under martial law.

“While we submit that these tactical and strategic gains will not annihilate the ideology completely, we declare that this achievement is clear manifestation of how our regional cooperation can lead to a decisive advance against the proliferation of terrorism in this part of the world,” Lorenzana said.

The DND chief is the designated administrator of martial law in Mindanao.

“We hope that this operational achievement in Marawi in the Philippines will be the catalyst that shall bring to the fore future cooperations and partnerships not only against terrorism but also those that shall defeat other regional and global security threats,” he added.

‘Last breath’

Also at the ASEAN forum, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Año said 42 terrorists “fought to the last breath” in the last days of the campaign to liberate Marawi.

The dead found inside the last buildings to be cleared included two women believed to be the wives of combatants who had chosen to take a last stand against advancing government troops. One of the two buildings was a mosque.

“We gave a chance for these militants and terrorists to surrender but they fought to the last breath so wala tayong magagawa (we can’t do anything),” Año said.

He said none of the militants could have escaped the final assault as all the hostages had been rescued.

Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr., Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) chief, said the remains were those of “stragglers” killed in clashes last Sunday. While the last 10 hostages were rescued, “some reportedly perished and were not able to survive the five months ordeal under the Maute’s custody,” Galvez said.

Artillery and automatic gunfire were still heard yesterday and journalists said they saw flames behind a mosque.

Abella said the government had prevailed against “the most serious threat of violent extremism and radicalism in the Philippines and in Southeast Asia.”

The rebel occupation stunned a military inexperienced in urban combat and stoked wider concerns that IS loyalists have gained influence among local Muslims and have ambitions to use Mindanao as a base for operations in Southeast Asia.

Those fears were compounded by the organization of the militant alliance and its ability to recruit young fighters, lure foreign radicals, stockpile huge amounts of arms and endure 154 days of ground offensive and air strikes.

The authorities said 920 militants, 165 troops and police and at least 45 civilians were killed in the conflict, which displaced more than 300,000 people.

The center of the picturesque lakeside town is now in ruins due to heavy shelling and aerial bombing.

The militants had been able to defy the relentless bombing raids that destroyed entire neighborhoods by sheltering in basements and traveling through tunnels, according to the military.

Lurking ‘stragglers’

The deputy task force commander in Marawi, Col. Romeo Brawner, said troops would secure the city from militant “stragglers” who might still be alive.

“If we find them and they will attack our soldiers or even the civilians, then we will have to defend ourselves,” he told reporters.

Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Restituto Padilla confirmed there was still gunfire ongoing, but there were “no more terrorists” and the Army’s last battles were with an enemy decimated by the loss of its leadership.

“They were formless, they had no place to run,” he said.

Duterte had declared Marawi City liberated six days ago, even though fighting was not actually over. On Sunday, he said it was important to be vigilant because no country could escape IS’s “clutches of evil.”

“I’m not trying to scare you, but let’s just be prepared for any event,” he said.

Lorenzana said six battalions of troops would remain in Marawi and though the battle had been won, the enemy’s radical ideology had not been completely annihilated.

He thanked the United States, Australia, Singapore and China for providing weaponry and technical support, including surveillance aircraft, and said the conflict would be a catalyst for closer international cooperation against extremism.

The government estimates the rebuilding of the heart of Marawi could cost in excess of $1 billion.

Local officials, meanwhile, expressed gratitude to the military and the Philippine National Police (PNP) for liberating Marawi.

“We are thankful to the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police for restoring normalcy in Marawi City,” Zia Alonto Adiong of the 24-member Regional Assembly in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) said on Monday.

Adiong, spokesman for the Lanao del Sur provincial crisis management committee, said the office of Gov. Soraya Alonto-Adiong can now maximize its post-conflict humanitarian missions in Marawi City.

“We are also grateful to the non-military organizations and government line agencies helping our people rise from the vestiges of an armed conflict that hurt us to the core,” Adiong said.

Among those that responded to the call for help were the Humanitarian Emergency Assistance and Response Team of the ARMM government, United Nations-affiliated groups and Gawad Kalinga, among others.

People relieved

Marawi Mayor Majul Gandamra, chairman of the city peace and order council, said the liberation of Marawi gave much relief to the people in barangays under his jurisdiction.

ARMM Vice Gov. Haroun Al-Rashid Lucman, concurrent social welfare secretary of the autonomous region, said he was deeply touched by the sacrifices of the Army, the Marines and the police in driving away Maute and Abu Sayyaf terrorists from Marawi City.

“We all suffered from the Marawi siege. That was a painful experience, an aberration, a serious aberration on our history, the history of the Maranaos never conquered by the Spaniards, the Americans and the Japanese during World War II, only to be dislocated and pained by the doings of misguided fellow Maranaos,” Lucman said.

Meanwhile in Maguindanao, the Army has promoted three new generals to positions that would enable them to work closely with local officials in preventing the spread of extremism in the region.

Gens. Diosdado Carreon of the 601st Brigade, Jesus Sarsagat of the 603rd Brigade and Bismark Soliba of the 1st Mechanized Brigade were given promotion honors on Friday by the Army’s 6th Infantry Division at Camp Siongco in Datu Odin Sinsuat town in Maguindanao.

The traditional “donning of ranks” on the three new generals was led by Major Gen. Arnel dela Vega of 6th ID and Lt. Gen. Rolando Joselito Bautista, commander of the Philippine Army.

“They shall work closely with the mayors and provincial governors. They will also tap the help of academe, the Muslim and Christian religious communities to achieve their peace objectives,” Dela Vega said.

Soliba, the most senior among the three new Army generals in central Mindanao, graduated from the Philippine Military Academy in 1985. Carreon and Sarsagat belonged to PMA class ‘87 and ’88, respectively. – Alexis Romero, Roel Pareño, Gilbert Bayoran, John Unson, AFP

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