MANILA (Updated) -- President Rodrigo Duterte traveled to the war-torn Marawi City on Tuesday, October 17, to declare it liberated from Islamic State (IS) fighters, nearly five months after the Maute terror group laid siege to the southern Philippine city.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I hereby declare Marawi City liberated from the terrorist influence that marks the beginning of the rehabilitation," Duterte told the security forces that fought the Islamist fighters.
In a speech in Camarines Sur, Duterte, however, admitted that there were still challenges confronted by the government due to resistance offered by some Islamist fighters who were still hiding in Marawi City.
"It's now liberated, except for a few pocket of resistance somewhere but you can now enter Marawi," he added.
Earlier Tuesday, Malacañang appealed to remaining terrorists to end hostilities and instead come back to the "road of peace."
"With terrorist leaders gone, we call on all fighters to cease further resistance and violence and return to the road of peace. This is also the call of our Muslim leaders, our imams, Armm [Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao], MNLF [Moro National Liberation Front], MILF [Moro Islamic Liberation Front] chiefs, and the leaders of Muslim nations. And this is the plea of your family, friends and communities,” Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said.
"Let us restore peace and rebuild our land," he added.
Duterte said the government would not celebrate the government's successful retaking of Marawi, saying the lengthy armed conflict has resulted in the destruction of the city, which is home to 200,000 displaced individuals.
The President also apologized to Marawi residents who suffered for months because of the armed conflict in the city.
"That (Marawi liberation) could not be a cause for a celebration because we have destroyed in the process the city, which I admit, because we had to do it. There was no alternative. And I could only extend my apologies to the Maranao people," Duterte said.
"The circumstances really compelled us to act just what we did," he added.
Duterte said the government's next step was to help displaced individuals recover from the massive devastation brought about by the fighting between security forces and Jihadist fighters.
"We will have to spend and rehabilitate because whether we like it or not, they are our brothers and sisters, those especially who did not take part in any of those covert, open rebellion. So they have nothing to do with that. We will help," he said.
On October 16, state forces killed the last remaining leaders of the Maute group, Omar Maute and Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon.
But military spokesperson Brigadier General Restituto Padilla Jr. said that Hapilon and Maute's deaths did not mean that lawless acts in Marawi City already end, noting that around 20 individuals are still in the hands of the terrorists.
Padilla said that none of the remaining Filipino members of the Maute terror group are in the caliber of Hapilon and Maute.
"So far, in the group of Filipinos who are continuously taking part in Maute, we do not see anyone who may have the caliber similar to Hapilon and Omar. That is why we do not monitor especially those who were left inside the Marawi," he said in a televised interview.
He said there are around 20 local and foreign pro-Islamic fighters left in the battle area, including financier Dr. Mahmud Ahmad, who is considered by the military as a high-value target.
Padilla said Mahmud topped the list of six to eight foreigners who were still alive, joining the IS-linked terror group.
"There are also still in existence about 20 to 30 armed elements -- strugglers if you may call them -- of the group. And among these are about six to eight foreigners terrorists, to include the notorious foreign national, a Malaysian, by the name of Dr. Mahmud, who was the financier of the Marawi siege," Padilla said in a separate interview.
Security officials have considered Mahmud as the local extremists' financier and recruiter who helped them to have a direct link with the IS group and laid siege to Marawi.
Padilla said the government was not discounting the possibility that Mahmud may be anointed as the next extremist leader in Marawi.
"On the issue of leadership, we are not sure to date if Dr. Mahmud would be designated [as the next leader of the terror group in Marawi]. We will know in the next few days, based on the developments," Padilla said.
"That's why our goal in our continuing operation in other parts of Marawi is to hunt him down and his other accomplices," he added.
As of October 16, the death toll in Marawi crisis has risen to 1,057, including 847 terrorists, 163 security troops, and 47 civilians.
On May 23, Maute fighters wreaked havoc in the Marawi City while the military was conducting an operation against Hapilon, who is believed to be the emir of IS extremists in Southeast Asia.
The Maute group, who was purportedly in connivance with some foreign terrorists, allegedly stormed Marawi City in an effort to establish a caliphate for IS' Southeast Asia group.
Duterte was forced on May 23 to place the entire Mindanao under martial rule to quell the insurgency and avert the possible spread of terrorism to other parts of the country.
The 60-day martial law initially declared in Marawi lapsed last July 22 it but was extended by Congress until end of December this year. (With Third Anne Peralta-Malonzo/SunStar Philippines)