Philippines: Battle for Marawi hots up as top IS-linked terrorist reportedly killed
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared the southern city "liberated from terrorists' influence" but the military said the five-month battle against militants loyal to the Islamic State group was not yet over.
The Philippine military said on Thursday there was a "big possibility" that top Malaysian operative Mahmud Ahmad was killed in a battle overnight in Marawi City, during which 13 rebels were killed.
Marawi liberated from terrorists' influence: Duterte
Colonel Romeo Brawner, deputy commander of operations in Marawi, said further investigation was required, including questioning of hostages and scientific tests, but the military believed Mahmud was among the dead.
Duterte led rain-soaked soldiers in celebrations in Marawi
Mahmud, an academic, is believed to have been pivotal in funding the siege of Marawi, which has lasted almost five months. Some experts say he could succeed Isnilon Hapilon as point man in Southeast Asia for Islamic State following the death of Hapilon on Monday.
Duterte led rain-soaked soldiers in celebrations in Marawi, a day after the military announced the death of the head of the Islamic State group in Southeast Asia, Isnilon Hapilon, in a gunbattle in the city.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I hereby declare Marawi liberated from the terrorists' influence that marks the beginning of the rehabilitation," Duterte said, speaking moments after explosions and gunfire were heard in the city.
"I promise you this will never happen again," he said as he gave troops a snappy salute.
Duterte stood on a gymnasium stage with a ruined roof near a tarpaulin bearing large photos of the dead militants. After he left, soldiers took selfies in front of a bombed-out building while others hoisted a Philippine flag atop a tank.
Military chief of staff General Eduardo Ano later clarified that the fighting against 20 to 30 remaining militants continued, describing them as "stragglers" and the clashes as "mopping operations".
Duterte's battle in Marawi
"The small number of the remaining enemy can now be considered a law enforcement matter and does not constitute (a) serious threat to hinder (rehabilitation)," Ano said in a statement.
Troops persisted in efforts to rescue about 20 hostages, Colonel Romeo Brawner, deputy commander of the task force battling the militants, told AFP.
Asked by reporters if Duterte's declaration was symbolic, Brawner said: "Yes, because we cannot really say that (the area) is 100 percent cleared."
Philippines: Battle for Marawi hots up
Pro-IS gunmen occupied parts of Marawi, the main Islamic city in the predominantly Catholic Philippines, on May 23 following a foiled attempt by security forces to arrest Hapilon.
Black smoke billows from destroyed buildings after an artillery fire from government troops at the remaining Islamic militant positions near the lake in Marawi, on the southern island of Mindanao on October 19, 2017.