Philippine President Duterte has declared that Marawi city is now liberated from IS-linked jihadists. Rebuilding and rehabilitating the war-torn city will be a test case for Duterte, say analysts. Ana P. Santos reports.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I hereby declare Marawi City liberated from the terrorist influence that marks the beginning of rehabilitation," Duterte said during a speech before government troops in Marawi, according to The Philippine Star.
It comes a day after the Philippine military confirmed the deaths of two key Islamic militant leaders in a gun battle between government forces and jihadists.
Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, regarded as the IS' leader in Southeast Asia, and Omar Maute, the head of the so-called Maute group, a band of militants aligned with IS, were killed when government security forces assaulted enemy positions early Monday morning. The two men were reportedly trying to escape with hostages.
Duterte's announcement ends more than four months of urban warfare that started in late May when the Maute group overran Marawi city in the Lanao del Sur province in southern Philippines.
Troops struggled to take back the city in unfamiliar urban warfare that has left more than 160 soldiers dead and over 1,700 others wounded. Government forces have reportedly killed 824 Maute fighters since the fighting began, while the number of civilian fatalities is estimated to be 47.
Meanwhile, clearing operations continue as government troops move in to neutralize the last remaining 30 fighters who reportedly still hold 18 hostages. Eight of the fighters are reported to be foreign nationals and include Mahmud Ahmad, a Malaysian terror leader and former university lecturer seen as a possible successor of Hapilon.
"We don't see him (Mahmud) as a real threat. The centers of gravity were really Omar Maute and Isnilon Hapilon. They combined two groups, the Abu Sayaf and the Maute group," Colonel Romeo Brawner, deputy commander of the military's Joint Task Force Marawi, told DW.
"Now that we have neutralized the two leaders, we expect the whole Maute-IS group to be neutralized. Informally, Mahmud may now be the leader of this group, but we don't see followers being loyal to him," added Brawner.
Nonetheless, security forces remain on high alert in monitoring any possible sympathetic attacks. On Monday, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the military is preparing for the possibility that terrorists will move to neighboring cities of Cotabato, Basilan, Zamboanga, and Davao City, but remained confident that the government would be able to thwart attacks.
Evacuees eager to go home
Residents who were displaced by the violence welcomed the end of the fighting, and want to start making plans to go back home. Zia Alonto Adiong, spokesperson of the provincial crisis committee, told DW that his phone had been ringing and buzzing all day with calls and messages from residents eager to return to their homes.
"They have been living in evacuation centers or with relatives for more than five months. They are longing to go home," said Adiong.
There has been no formal announcement on when the residents can go back and the coming days will be crucial for the government, NGOs and civil society organizations to make preparations for the return of civilians to Marawi.
"Currently, we are still assessing if it is safe for them to return to their homes. Also, we are working on a system of verifying residents and issuing them residence certificates. We all want normalcy again but we can’t allow sympathizers and supporters to re-enter Marawi," Adiong told DW.
Much of Marawi city was destroyed by air strikes and bombings and risk assessors originally estimated that over 50 billion pesos ($1 billion, €850 million) would be needed for rebuilding and rehabilitating the war-torn city.
But as Adiong stressed to DW, "The damage in the main battle area has not yet been assessed by the team because they have not yet been able to enter it." The estimate for rebuilding is expected to go up once site assessments of the heavily damaged main battle area have been made.
The end of the fighting will be the start of the rebuilding of Marawi city which could take years. Analysts say the rehabilitation of the city will be a test case for Duterte whose leadership style has been described as fiery and "loose."
"He is not a hands-on president," said Jose Antonio Custodio, a security analyst and military historian. "Rebuilding Marawi will require synchronizing the different stakeholders: government agencies, foreign donors, military and civilians - something like conducting an orchestra," he told DW. "And well, Duterte is not a good conductor."