MARAWI, Philippines — A top Malaysian militant is believed to be among 13 Islamic State group-linked militants killed in fighting overnight in Marawi city in the southern Philippines, a military spokesman said Thursday, though his body hasn’t been recovered yet.
Sporadic fighting continued even after President Rodrigo Duterte visited the battle-scarred Islamic city on Tuesday and announced its liberation, sparking hopes that hundreds of thousands of residents could finally return home after being displaced for nearly five months by a bloody siege.
Parts of the city are in ruins. Associated Press journalists who inspected the destruction of the city from Lake Marawi on the waterfront Thursday saw the skeletons of buildings with their walls charred and blasted out. The dome of a mosque bore a hole and a bullet-pocked minaret rose above the area.
A day earlier, defence officials announced that two of the last leaders of the siege — Isnilon Hapilon, who is one of the FBI’s most-wanted terror suspects, and Omarkhayam Maute — were killed in a gunbattle.
Military spokeman Maj. Gen. Restituto Padilla said Malaysian Mahmud bin Ahmad was believed among 13 militants killed overnight and another seven in the morning, though officials were awaiting the recovery of his body to get confirmation. Six soldiers were slightly injured in the fighting.
Two civilian hostages — a mother and her teen-age daughter — were also rescued, Padilla said.
The military “is increasingly becoming confident that he (Mahmud) was among those who have been killed but we are on the process of confirming this since the firefight is still ongoing,” Padilla told The Associated Press.
He said the information about Mahmud was based on what the rescued mother and daughter told the military.
Mahmud, who uses nom de guerre Abu Handzalah, is a close associate of Hapilon. Military officials said he had linked up Hapilon with the Islamic State group and provided funding to bankroll the siege of Marawi.
Padilla said troops discovered that there may be more militant fighters remaining in a small battle area than earlier estimated.
Marawi, a mosque-studded centre of Islamic faith in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines, has been devastated by the siege by the militants who waved IS-style black flags and hung them on buildings they had occupied in Marawi’s business district and outlying areas, according to the military.
The insurrection prompted the military to launch a ground offensive and airstrikes, with the United States and Australia later backing the troops by deploying surveillance aircraft. Duterte declared martial law across the south, the homeland of minority Muslims and the scene of a decades-old separatist rebellion, to deal with the uprising and prevent other insurgents from waging attacks elsewhere and reinforcing the fighters in Marawi.
The surprise occupation of the city and the involvement of foreign fighters set off alarms in Southeast Asia. Analysts said parts of the southern Philippines were at risk of becoming a new base for IS as it lost territory to international forces in Iraq and Syria.