Marawi conflict into its final weeks, says military

Militants contained in a 10ha area; battle 'should not take more than six weeks' to end

The conflict in Marawi is into its final weeks, officials said, as security forces root out the remaining Muslim militants who have occupied this war-torn southern Philippine city for nearly four months.

"We are slowly constricting their area," Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said at a news conference yesterday. He said the militants had been contained inside a 10ha area in the southern part of Marawi.

General Eduardo Ano, the military chief, declined to say when the conflict would end but his ground commanders believe it should not take more than six weeks.

More than 800 militants, government troops and civilians have since been killed in the fighting, which has forced thousands to flee their homes and destroyed large parts of Marawi.

President Rodrigo Duterte, meanwhile, again shot down suggestions that the government negotiate with the militants.

"I will not even agree to look at them. This will not end until the last terrorist is taken out. That is my order," he told reporters.

Gen Ano said most of the leaders of the groups that stormed Marawi on May 23 had already been killed. Only two - Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute - are still alive. They had divided between them the gunmen still willing to fight.

NO TO NEGOTIATIONS

I will not even agree to look at them. This will not end until the last terrorist is taken out. That is my order.

PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE, on the militants in Marawi.

The conflict in Marawi began when hundreds of armed extremists flying the black flag of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) overran the city following a disastrous attempt by a police team to arrest Hapilon.

ISIS has named Hapilon, chieftain of the Abu Sayyaf terror group, as head of its South-east Asia wing. He carries a US$5 million (S$6.7 million) bounty put up by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Gen Ano said Hapilon was still in the "main battle area".

He added: "There are options we are considering. But, as much as possible, we don't want Hapilon to leave the main battle area alive."

Most of the gunmen who attacked Marawi came from a group led by Maute and his brothers.

Gen Ano said three of Omar's brothers - Abdullah, Maddie and Otto - were already dead, citing accounts from four captured militants and "inside sources".

Security forces are now moving to rescue about 40 to 50 hostages still being held by the militants as "human shields" and an "insurance to get out alive", said Gen Ano.

A Catholic priest rescued on Saturday was flown to Manila and presented to reporters yesterday.

Appearing upbeat and in good health despite his ordeal, the Reverend Teresito "Chito" Soganub, when asked how he was, said: "I am physically strong and handsome. That's it for now."

Father Soganub, 51, vicar general of Marawi, was rescued at about 11.45pm last Saturday, hours after Philippine troops retook a mosque the militants were using as an "assembly point and storage of combat supply", Defence Secretary Lorenzana said.

He was found with another hostage, 29-year-old teacher Lordbin Noblesa Acopio.

Gen Ano said Father Soganub's rescue was "a deliberate effort".

He added that there were at least 12 more hostages being held inside a network of tunnels and "chambers" beneath the mosque.

"We are concentrating our efforts into rescuing them, as well as other hostages in other buildings. We'll try to rescue them alive," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2017, with the headline 'Marawi conflict into its final weeks, says military'. Print Edition | Subscribe