February 25, 2018, 1:40 pm
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Maute leaders killed; Año says it’s dead end for terror group

TWO remaining leaders of the armed conflict in Marawi City were killed yesterday, together with seven of their followers, as government troops assaulted the lairs of the terrorist Maute Group.

The assault also led to the rescue of 20 hostages, including a two-month-old girl born inside the battle area.

“This is the end of this Maute Group,” said AFP chief Gen. Eduardo Año who flew to Marawi City hours after the killing of Omar Maute and Isnilon Hapilon, senior leader of the Abu Sayyaf and reportedly the anointed leader of the Islamic State for Southeast Asia.

“They (Hapilon and Omar) are the centers of gravity and everything will crumble. The other areas of the Maute-ISIS, they will also crumble,” Año said.

As to the effect of the death of Hapilon on the establishment of an ISIS caliphate in the Philippines, Año said: “This is a major debacle to the ISIS being established here in the Philippines.”

“They cannot find another leader immediately, including the infrastructure. In fact, what will happen is since they are leaderless, a lot of their followers will abandon this cause or this movement,” said Año.

Año said government troops assaulted two structures inside the main battle area around 2 a.m. to rescue hostages. “A firefight broke out, and the two were among those killed,” he said.

The assault ended at around 6 a.m. The bodies of Hapilon and Maute were retrieved in one of the structures.

“The firefight was so intense and this was apparently their last stand,” Año said.

He said Hapilon was hit in the chest while Omar was hit by sniper fire in the head, causing his head to be disfigured.

The US government has a $5-million reward offer for the neutralization of Hapilon, on top of the P17.4 million offered by Philippine government. Omar has a P5-million bounty for his neutralization.

Last month, the military confirmed the death of Omar’s brother and Maute Group leader co-leader, Abdullah, who was killed along with two other brothers who are also members of the group.

Experts say Hapilon was an Islamist ideologue who took fighters from his faction to join forces with the Maute clan, a well-funded extremist group that emerged only last year.

Año said another key operative, Malaysian Mahmud Ahmad, was believed to be in the battle zone.

The leaders have been central to rebels regrouping, re-arming and recruiting after previous clashes over the past two years, growing stronger each time. The alliance, Dawla Islamiya, has been bolstered by fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Middle East, among other countries. Experts say foreigners have aided funding and recruiting, preying on vulnerable youth, as shown by the presence of teenagers and child soldiers in Marawi.

Año said the Hapilon and Omar will be given a decent burial, in keeping with the Muslim tradition, but the military will not disclose their burial place “because we don’t want this to be a symbol of martyrdom or be used by their sympathizers and supporters to advance their interest.”

MAUTE STRAGGLERS

Año also said about 30 Maute men remain in the main battle area, including eight foreigners led by Malaysian Mahmud bin Ahmad alias Dr. Mahmud. He said 22 hostages are left in the area, excluding 39 Maute family members who were brought to the battle area.

“We are now calling them (Maute remnants) stragglers because they don’t have leaders anymore. They are on their own, so they are stragglers,” said Año.

As to end of the Marawi conflict that broke out on May 23, Año said: “This is really very near... I cannot say when but I believe this is going to be over before the end of the week.”

“It will be just a matter of days before it can finally be declared that Marawi has been liberated from the clutches of the terrorists,” said Año.

The fighting has killed 824 Maute members and 162 soldiers and policemen, and 47 civilians.

“The Marawi crisis will be over sooner than later. The resistance or what is left of it, the terrorists will crumble. It is the dead end, there is nowhere else to go for them. Needless to say, the remaining terrorists should as well free their hostages,” said Año.

RETALIATION

Año said the military has been checking reports about possible retaliatory attacks from the terrorists. “Don’t worry. We will nip them in the bud... We are prepared for that, any backlash or whatever that they will do,” he said.

Año said the neutralization of Hapilon and Omar “is the last straw that has broken the camel’s back.”

Año said President has been already informed of the accomplishment. “Actually, he is very happy. The news was already relayed to him and he is congratulating our troops,” he said.

Año said the military will focus its attention on the Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters after the Marawi conflict finally ends. Like the Maute Group, the Abu Sayyaf and the BIFF pledged allegiance to the ISIS a few years back.

“After this Marawi crisis is over, we will run after the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu and Basilan and also the BIFF in Maguindanao. Our (objective) is to finish all these Maute ISIS, Abu Sayyaf and BIFF until the end of 2017, December 2017. So this will continue and there will be no let-up. It’s about time to end these terrorists here in Mindanao,” he said.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he and President Duterte were supposed to visit Marawi City but they were prevailed upon by commanders on the ground to postpone their trip.

Lorenzana said a female hostage who was rescued last Saturday provided information on the whereabouts of Hapilon and Omar. “That’s the building that we assaulted early this morning,” he said.

He also said: “The implication of this (death of Hapilon and Omar) is the end of the Marawi incident is nearing its end, and we may announce the termination of hostilities in a couple of days.”

MARTIAL LAW

Lorenzana said the defense and military establishments will still have to assess the situation in the entire Mindanao to determine if there is a need to lift martial law which was declared by President Duterte hours after the Maute attacked Marawi on May 23.

“We are not talking about lifting martial law yet. Let’s see. We are looking at the immediate aftermath of the killings of these two leaders,” said Lorenzana.

“We may be announcing the cessation of hostilities within this week and after that, we will find out, we will assess what’s the situation in the entire Mindanao if there is a need to recommend to the President the lifting of martial law.”

Rep. Gary Alejano (PL, Magdalo), a former Marines officer, said the President should consider lifting martial law “sooner than later” as the Maute leaders are now dead.

Last July, Duterte said he needed Congress to extend martial law for the city’s rehabilitation and to prepare for the expected “retaliation” from the ISIS-inspired Maute Group and its allies.

CLEAR VICTORY

Alejano congratulated the AFP and the Department of National Defense for neutralizing Hapilon and Maute, saying it is a clear victory for the people.

“To those who went ahead, my snappy salute. You will forever be remembered. You did not die in vain,” he said.

Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said the development in Marawi is a “clear victory against terrorism.”

Senators commended government forces.

Sen. Juan Miguel Zubiri, who is from Bukidnon which is adjacent to Lanao del Sur, said while Russian and allied forces took two years to take over Mosul in Syria, “it only took our brave and gallant soldiers five months to retake Marawi city from the terrorists.”

Zubiri also said he supports the implementation of martial law until December 31 “so that human, material and financial resources can be fully utilized and rehabilitation will be achieved at a shorter time, sooner than later.”

Senators Francis Pangilinan, Sherwin Gatchalian, Juan Edgardo Angara, Paolo Benigno Aquino, JV Ejercito, Joel Villanueva, and Antonio Trillanes IV commended the soldiers and policemen involved in the operations. – With Wendell Vigilia, Jocelyn Montemayor and JP Lopez

 
 
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