DESPITE the liberation of Marawi City, Mindanao will remain under martial law due to a lingering threat from terror groups in the country, a military spokesman said on Friday.
In a news conference in Malacañang, Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla Jr. said there was still a network of local terrorists who remained combative — grounds for possible extension of martial law in Mindanao, if not addressed by yearend.
But Padilla assured the public that the government forces were exhausting all efforts to foil any potential terror attacks by Islamist fighters.
“We’re working towards that (lifting of martial law in Mindanao). We’re hoping to be able to address and normalize everything by the end of the year because that was the deadline given to us. But be that as it may, the network of the local terrorist groups still continue and this is the subject of our efforts,” Padilla told reporters.
Martial law was declared in Mindanao on May 23, when fighting in Marawi broke out. Under the 1987 Constitution, the declaration was limited to 60 days. But on the request of President Rodrigo Duterte, Congress extended martial law until December 31.
A day after the death of Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute in October, Duterte declared that Marawi has been liberated from the influence of terrorists, allowing the government to shift its focus to rehabilitating the city.
Some sectors have asked Duterte to lift martial law now that security forces have eliminated the leaders of the bandits.
But the military said martial law was still needed to curb terrorist networks in other parts of Mindanao like Basilan and Sulu.
‘Road to normalcy’
Meanwhile, Padilla said clearing operations were ongoing as part of government efforts to bring back the war-torn city on the “road to normalcy.”
“As of yesterday, up to today, 16 more unexploded ordnance were found and addressed by our combined teams of explosive ordnance disposal experts,” Padilla said.
The military, he said, also recovered two more high-powered firearms in the lake area where troops seized 30 high-powered firearms.
Padilla said nine villages (barangay) have been cleared for residents to return “following the protocol that was established by the local government.”
“We are also working on the clearing of 10 more villages next week and we will turn this over to the local government and to Joint Task Force Bangon Marawi,” he said.
Out of the 96 villages in Marawi City, Padilla said 41 were unaffected while 36 were still the subject of continuing clearing operations “until such time that we are convinced that this can be opened safely to returning residents.”
He said the last fire fight between state troops and the Islamic State-linked Maute group was on November 5 in which nine terrorists were killed.
“This has been the last. And that is why recently, there has been an announcement that we no longer sense or monitor any sign of life in the last main battle areas,” Padilla said.
Padilla also said the military would prosecute soldiers who would be found guilty of committing rape against the displaced women of the Marawi siege.
Padilla called on victims of erring soldiers to come forward after Amnesty International (AI) reported that the military committed abuse against eight civilians who were trapped in Marawi.
The AI report cited the account of one of the eight civilians, a construction worker, who told the AI that he and his companions were crossing a bridge to flee from the militants when Marines confronted and detained them, beat them up, and tied their hands and feet with electrical wire.
The AI also cited an account from another civilian who claimed that the military beat him to a pulp, hit his hands and back with the butt of a rifle, and poured burning liquid poured all over his body. He was eventually brought to the Red Cross.
Padilla said allegations of sexual abuse have been floating since June, the second month of government operations against the Maute.
“We are ready to take action as soon as a formal complaint is lodged,” Padilla said.
The Marawi conflict ended after 154 days of intense fighting between government forces and the Maute group, leaving over a hundred soldiers, at least 47 civilians and about 800 terrorists dead, as well as 500,000 people displaced.
WITH LLANESCA T. PANTI