By Jeoffrey Maitem and Froilan Gallardo
Cotabato and Cagayan de Oro, Philippines
President Rodrigo Duterte has approved a recommendation to end martial law in the southern Philippines, more than two years after the military defeated militants linked to the Islamic State (IS) who took over the city of Marawi for five months in 2017, his spokesman said Tuesday.
A presidential order imposing military rule across the Mindanao region is set to expire at year’s end.
“The Office of the President wishes to announce that President Rodrigo Roa Duterte will not extend martial law in Mindanao upon its expiration on Dec. 31, 2019,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said.
Top security officials had advised Duterte of a “weakening of the terrorist and extremist rebellion” in the south, Panelo said.
The president’s decision came days after the military and police said that regional security was now stable, despite the presence of foreign militants who were involved in at least one suicide bombing early this year. In that incident, an Indonesian couple bombed a Catholic Church in southern Jolo Island in January, leaving 23 people dead.
“The palace is confident of the capability of our security forces in maintaining the peace and security of Mindanao without extending Martial Law,” Panelo said. “The people of Mindanao are assured that any incipient major threat in the region would be nipped in the bud.”
During the past weekend, however, four pro-IS Filipino militants and a soldier were killed in a gunbattle on southern Jolo island, the military said. The firefight broke out when soldiers who were pursuing suspected members of an Abu Sayyaf militant group allied with IS caught up with them.
The militants belonged to an Abu Sayyaf faction led by Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, believed by U.S. and Filipino intelligence officials to be the new leader of the IS branch in the Philippines who succeeded Isnilon Hapilon, officials said.
Hapilon led hundreds of Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern fighters in seizing control of Marawi in May 2017, in hopes of transforming the southern city into an IS caliphate in this predominantly Catholic country.
American and Australian troops provided intelligence support to the Philippine forces, while pitched fighting raged for five months. Hapilon and his key leaders were killed in the battle, along with more than 1,000 other militants, soldiers and civilians.
But a handful of foreign militants are believed to have escaped and have sought sanctuary in other places where Filipino militants operate, including in Jolo where Sawadjaan’s unit is based.
Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Edgard Arevalo welcomed Duterte’s decision, but said the armed forces would remain vigilant. He said the security climate in Mindanao had significantly improved and was “more conducive to economic activities.”
For Mohamad Khalid Quibranza Dimaporo, a congressman who represents the first district of southern Lanao del Norte province, lifting martial law could test the capabilities of local governments in keeping the peace.
“As martial law is lifted, we hope that there will be an augmentation of police and military forces in conflict-vulnerable areas, such as the Lanao region, and that the total gun ban remains in effect for the duration of his term,” he said.
Richel V. Umel in Iligan City, Philippines, contributed to this report.
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