MANILA, Philippines (4th UPDATE) – "Ladies and gentlemen, I hereby declare Marawi City liberated from the terrorist influence that marks the beginning of rehabilitation."
This was what President Rodrigo Duterte said when he made his 7th visit to Marawi City on Tuesday, October 17, the 148th day of the war since it erupted on May 23.
He declared the liberation of Marawi City from local armed groups whose leaders pledged allegiance to the international terrorist network Islamic State (ISIS).
AFP Spokesperson Major General Restituto Padilla, however, said in an ANC interview the war in Marawi continues. "It will continue until armed elements are dealt with. But terrorists no longer have complete control."
"There are still a few more that are left, and a few more hostages that are still in the area that remains to be a battle area. The declaration of the President hopefully gives way to the entry and start of rehabilitation, reconstruction, and rebuilding of Marawi from the ashes."
Padilla said the rebuilding of Marawi "needs to have the go signal of the President that's why the declaration has been made. But the fight for the remaining armed members that are still in the area continues and based on the ground commanders' testaments – it's most likely that the President was debriefed – that this is a matter of time, that will happen soon, and that there are no complications that will be seen or are seen at the moment, this is why the declaration has been made."
Armed Forces chief General Eduardo Año also said on Tuesday, "Marawi City has been declared liberated. The small number of the remaining enemy can now be considered a law enforcement matter and does not constitute serious threat to hinder the succeeding phases of national government programs. What remains now is mopping up operations against Maute ISIS stragglers in a small area. We can now begin the next phase which is damage assessment which is part already of rehabilitation and reconstruction.”
In a statement later given to the media, Padilla said, "The declaration was made by the President knowing the remaining enemy force is no longer a force to reckon with. Clearing operations are already underway to finish them off should they decide to continue the fight."
Padilla said the President thanked "all our troops for their sacrifice, dedication and gallantry. He also committed government's assistance to all evacuees and families affected by the conflict. We call on every sector and our citizenry to help and support the bigger task of rebuilding."
“The small number of the remaining enemy can now be considered a law enforcement matter and does not constitute serious threat to hinder the succeeding phases of national government programs. What remains now is mopping up operations against Maute ISIS stragglers in a small area. We can now begin the next phase which is damage assessment which is part already of rehabilitation and reconstruction.”
A day earlier, troops killed Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute – the top leaders behind the siege – and rescued 17 hostages.
Over a thousand people were killed in the war that dragged for nearly 5 months.
More bodies are expected to be retrieved as they clear the battle area. Local officials expect the death toll among the civilians to rise.
"Ang problema ko, ang nasugatan ngayon, marami yan. I can guarantee you, sinasabi ko sa inyo. Walang iwanan," Duterte told soldiers gathered in Marawi. (My problem is the many wounded. I can guarantee you, I am telling you, no one will be left behind.)
Padilla said there are still about 30 soldiers who may be wounded and may not able to move about as easily. In addition, there are 20 more hostages who have yet to be rescued.
The war erupted last May when troops raided a safe house where Hapilon was reportedly seen. As Hapilon escaped the raid, black-clad armed men waving ISIS black flags rushed to the streets to attack various facilities, including a Catholic church and a hospital.
They also took hostages, only Christians initially, but later also took local Muslims. The hostages served various roles in the battle area. They cooked for them, attended to wounded fighters, led Muslim prayers, and helped manufacture improvised explosive devices.
The urban terrain proved difficult for troops used to fighting in the jungles. They fought block by block, house by house, floor by floor, and room by room, against enemies the military believes were trained by foreign jihadists.
Heavily armed and well stocked, the armed groups were able to sustain the war for months. The military resorted to air strikes to soften the ground before ground assaults.
Foreign allies provided support. The US and Australia, both treaty allies, flew surveillance planes to help locate the enemies. China provided some guns.
Duterte promised he will rebuild Marawi City. Congress has allocated funds for Marawi's rebuilding in the 2018 budget that is currently being deliberated.
Vice President Leni Robredo said on Tuesday: "Ang pagwawakas po ng labanan sa Marawi ay simula pa lamang ng mahabang proseso ng paghihilom at pagbangon muli. Hindi magiging madali ang rehabilitation at reconstruction, pati na din ang pagbabalik ng tiwala sa isa’t isa. Kaya ngayon higit na kinakailangan ang ating pagtutulungan at pagkakaisa para makamit ang tunay at pangmatagalan na kapayapaan."
(The end off hostilities in Marawi is just the beginning of the long process of healing and rising up. Rehabilitation and reconstruction is not going to be easy, neither will regaining the trust of both sides. That is why we all the more need the help and cooperation of everyone to achieve real and long-term peace.) – with reports from Bobby Lagsa/Rappler.com