Updated: October 18, 2017 10:50 AM GMT
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (in brown shirt) marches with soldiers after declaring the liberation of Marawi from terrorist gunmen who occupied the city for almost five months on Oct. 17. (Photo by Divina M. Suson)
Government security forces have liberated the southern Philippine city of Marawi from gunmen after almost five months of armed clashes that left the city devastated and close to 400,000 people homeless.
On Oct. 17, President Rodrigo Duterte declared the city free from the control of Islamic State-inspired fighters who attacked and occupied the city on May 23.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I hereby declare Marawi City liberated from the terrorist influence that marks the beginning of rehabilitation," said the president in an address to soldiers in the city.
"Marawi City has been declared liberated," echoed Gen. Eduardo Ano, chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
He said a small number of gunmen continued to hide in the city's outskirts but they "can now be considered a law enforcement matter and do not constitute a serious threat."
The general said "mopping up operations" remain against up to 30 terrorist gunmen, including at least six foreigners, inside a two-hectare battle area.
In his address to the soldiers, Duterte thanked the troops for their "sacrifice, dedication, and gallantry" in the fight against the terrorists.
Duterte also promised government assistance to all those who were displaced by the conflict.
The liberation of Marawi came a day after the government announced the death of terrorist leaders Isnilon Hapilon, reportedly the emir of the so-called Islamic State in Southeast Asia, and Omar Maute of the local Maute Group.
Bishop Edwin de la Pena of Marawi welcomed the president’s declaration, saying that it was a signal to start rebuilding of the predominantly Muslim city.
"Thank God," said the bishop. "We can now return peace and order in the city, in the entire Mindanao, and the whole country. Praise be to God."
Bishop De la Pena added he was willing "to grant the government a little more time to keep martial law if … the rehabilitation of Marawi would proceed much faster."
Zia Alonto Adiong, a spokesman for the crisis committee in the province of Lanao del Sur, said the government can now focus on the rebuilding and rehabilitation of Marawi.
"The defeat of the [terrorists] and the death of its leaders … provide us an opportunity not only to win the war against violent extremism, but also the rare privilege of winning the peace by addressing the root causes of the conflict in Mindanao," said Adiong.
The Philippine military said the conflict in Marawi resulted in the death of 47 civilians, 163 government forces, and at least 847 enemy gunmen.