MANILA -- After 16 years of dodging military dragnets and spreading terror in southern Philippines, Isnilon Hapilon, Southeast Asia’s most notorious IS-linked terrorist leader, was killed Monday dawn during a gun battle with government forces making their final offensive against Maute terror group gripping Marawi City since May 23 this year.
Hapilon’s second in command, Omar Maute was also killed, leaving the terror group leaderless, although there are about eight foreign terrorists still fighting the government forces.
After 147 days of close quarter fighting as of today, the Maute terror group suffered 824 dead while the military sustained 162 killed.
During the same period, the military has rescued 1,771 civilians held hostage by Maute terrorists. The military also recovered 837 high-powered firearms in the main battle area.
There were 17 hostages, including a two-month child rescued by soldiers during the fighting.
The offensive launched by the military and police forces has drastically reduced Maute’s occupied area from about 30 hectares at the start of the fighting to just two hectares at present.
The gun battle has been confined right at the city’s once bustling business district which is now in ruins.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Armed Forces chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Año said during a press conference in Marawi City which was broadcast live on radio and television that the Marawi crisis would end soon.
Marawi City is some 750 kilometers from Manila.
The 51-year old Hapilon, the “emir” anointed of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia, was killed while trying to flee to another building in the area. He was armed with an M4 automatic rifle when he was killed.
On the other hand, Omar Maute was killed by an army sniper while fleeing with Hapilon and other terrorists and their hostages at the height of the fighting from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. Friday.
Año said the military has a hard time crushing the Mautes holed up in the city because soldiers have to be extra careful not to hit civilians held hostage by the terrorists.
The hostages, including women and children were used by the terrorists as human shields, preventing the soldiers from an all-out offensive.
Año also said that had there been no hostages, the fighting could have been ended in a few days.
But he said the military values innocent human lives, hence the counter-offensive is carefully planned so that no hostages would be hit in the crossfire.
During the initial stage of the fighting, some 900 Maute terrorists occupied the city of Marawi last May 23 this year when a military-police team tried to serve a warrant of arrest on Hapilon, who was reported to be hiding in the area.
This triggered the fighting that continued to rage to date, though now in pockets of resistance unlike the previous months wherein the IS-linked Maute terror group put up a strong resistance against government forces backed up by warplanes, helicopter gunships, tanks and armored vehicles.
By all indication, the Mautes had long prepared to fight the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Philippine National Police (PNP) as the terror group has secretly stored high-powered weapons, ammunition, bombs and improvised explosive devices (IED) the past months or even years without being detected by military and police intelligence units, apparently because of the connivance of civilian-sympathizers in Marawi.
The terrorists also utilized the underground tunnels constructed by wealthy residents as part of their security measure in case a “rido” (family feud) erupts which is common among Muslim communities.
During the assault Monday dawn, the military launched the operation following reports given by an informer that Hapilon and Omar Maute were holed up in one of the buildings in the main battle area.
Fighting immediately erupt as the troops cautiously inched toward the building where the two terrorists were hiding, tagging along with their some 37 hostages and 39 members of the Maute families.
During the fighting, a sniper fatally hit Omar Maute. The killing of the two terrorist leaders practically left a leadership vacuum in the Maute terror group.
Año said the military would intensify their operation to end once and for all the terrorist threat posed by the Maute terror group out to establish a Caliphate in the Philippines.
He said a total of nine Maute terrorists, including Hapilon and Omar were among those killed in the fighting on Monday.
There are still some 22 hostages in the hands of the terrorists.
The United States has put up a USD5 million on the head of Hapilon for his capture dead or alive, while the Philippine government has allocated USD200,000.
Hapilon was involved in the kidnapping of 20 tourists, including three Americans in Dos Palmas Resort in Palawan on May 27, 2001.
The three American held hostages by the Abu Sayyaf were Guillermo Sobero, Martin Burnham and his wife, Gracia, an American missionary couple.
But on June 11, 2001, Sobero was beheaded by the Abu Sayyaf. His execution was announced by Abu Sabaya, the Abu Sayyaf spokesman, as a “birthday present” to then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Sabaya was later killed in a running sea gun battle with government forces off the coast of Basilan Island in southern Philippines.
In June 2002, Martin Burnham died in the crossfire between government forces and the Abu Sayyaf during a rescue operation in Basilan. Gracia Burnham was wounded during the fighting but soldiers rescued her.
It was this kidnapping incident that Hapilon was indicted in the District of Columbia for kidnapping involving US nationals.
Since the Dos Palmas abduction, Hapilon and other terrorists were the object of massive manhunt by Philippine military and police forces..
But the wily Hapilon managed to escape from pursuing government forces.
There had been reports that Hapilon was killed but all were fake news as the terrorist leader mounted attacks after attacks, and continued his kidnapping spree.
But this time, Hapilon is really dead, a victory of the Philippine government in crushing terrorism in the country. (Ben Cal/PNA)