FBI confirms Hapilon’s remains as military readies to declare battle for Marawi over

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A Marine takes a photo of his comrades at their send-off ceremony after five months of combat in Marawi City. (photo by Romeo Ranoco, Reuters)

MARAWI CITY, Philippines — The military is preparing to declare the fighting in Marawi City “totally complete” as the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation said DNA tests have confirmed that Isnilon Hapilon, the Abu Sayyaf leader who led the occupation of the Islamic city, is dead.

Only 20 insurgents remained in a small area in Marawi, including five “significant” figures, and three battalions of troops were closing in on their positions, said Western Mindanao Command chief Lieutenant General Carlito Galvez Saturday as troops continued a phased withdrawal from the devastated lakeside city.

“Most probably tomorrow, we can do it,” Galvez told reporters when asked when the military can declare fighting is over. “We can declare it is totally complete.”

The same day, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said they “have received an official report” from the FBI confirming that “the DNA sample taken from a body recovered by our operating units in Marawi matches that of Isnilon Hapilon.” According to Molly Koscina, Press Attache, US Embassy in the Philippines, “at the request of the AFP, a representative of the US Embassy in the Philippines Legal Attache office handcarried DNA taken from Hapilon‎’s body to Quantico in Virginia for identify verification. The result was positive.” She added that it signals US support for “our friend, partner, and ally in the fight against terror.”

The United States has provided technical support to treaty ally the Philippines, including surveillance drones.

Galvez said troops are zeroing in on three sons of Isnilon Hapilon, the slain “emir” of Islamic State in Southeast Asia, and two Malaysians, including Amin Baco, who has been central to facilitating the movement of foreign fighters in the region.

“We cannot say our mission is totally accomplished or completed if the five persons are still there,” he said, adding the remaining militants are “struggling to survive” and to protect their shrinking position.

Another general told Reuters they were also looking for a prominent Indonesian militant. The military is concerned Hapilon’s sons and these foreign fighters could succeed core leaders of the alliance killed this week.

Hapilon and Omarkhayam Maute were killed by commandoes on Monday. Malaysian Mahmud Ahmad, who experts say may have funded the Marawi siege, was also dead, according to a freed hostage, but his body has yet to be found.

The deaths of the leaders could slow down any effort by Islamic State to establish a presence in Mindanao, a vast island with a history of rebellion and home to the predominantly Roman Catholic nation’s Muslim minority.

The organization and combat capability of the rebels has stunned the military. Some experts see the siege as a prelude to a more ambitious bid by Islamic State loyalists to exploit Mindanao’s poverty and use its jungles and mountains as a base to train, recruit and launch attacks in the region.

Galvez inspected troops in Marawi and sent off a battalion of marines central to military operations. It was the second unit to leave the conflict area.

The military declined to divulge the number of troops remaining in Marawi. Elite commandoes were leading the assault, with army infantry battalions and police commandoes securing safe areas.

The military said eleven hostages were “processed” on Saturday to determine whether they were really captives or militant members and sympathizers trying to slip away.

Galvez said rehabilitation, including retrieval of the dead, would start after the end of hostilities is declared.

The government estimates the rebuilding of areas battered by months of government air strikes could cost at least P50 billion ($971 million).