MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine troops have killed at least 11 remaining militants aligned with the Islamic State group over the weekend in southern Marawi city and are attempting to determine whether a Malaysian who may have taken over the militants' leadership is still alive, officials said Monday.
Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Restituto Padilla said the killing of the 11 "stragglers" in daylong clashes Sunday was part of clearing operations in a harbor area of Marawi, where the military ended its massive offensive on Oct. 23 after quelling the insurrection and sending a few remaining gunmen into hiding.
"Clearing operations are focused on the remaining areas of Marawi believed to hold terrorist stragglers fighting for survival and hiding out in the hope of escaping the main battle area," Padilla said.
It's unclear how many gunmen remain hiding in the battle ruins near Lanao Lake.
More than 900 militants, 165 troops and policemen and 47 civilians were killed in the fighting in Marawi which dragged on for five months and forced the Islamic city's 200,000 residents to flee to safety before troops quelled the last major resistance put up by the gunmen, who took positions in bullet-pocked buildings, houses and mosques.
National police chief Ronald dela Rosa told reporters that there was intelligence that a Malaysian militant, Amin Baco, survived and has assumed leadership of the militants, but military officials said they believe Baco was killed in Sunday's fighting or in recent weeks, and that troops were searching for his body.
"Contrary to recent pronouncements by some officials that it is now headed by a certain Amin Baco, the Armed Forces of the Philippines strongly believes that the group is now leaderless and without direction," Padilla said.
Baco, who also used the nom de guerre Abu Jihad, is said to have collaborated with different militant groups and joined many terrorist attacks for several years across the southern Philippines, the scene of a decades-long separatist rebellion by minority Muslims. He has provided combat and bomb-making training to allied groups in different areas, according to the military.
It said in recent years he joined a group led by a top Filipino terror suspect, Isnilon Hapilon, who was killed in the final major battle in Marawi last month along with another militant leader, Omarkhayam Maute.
Thousands of residents have been allowed to return to parts of the city away from the devastated lakeside area where troops are still searching for gunmen and clearing buildings of booby traps.
Last week, Marawi village guards captured an Indonesian militant, Muhammad Ilham Syahputra, who authorities said told them that a few dozen more gunmen remained hiding in damaged buildings and are trying escape from Marawi. On Sunday, Philippine authorities arrested Maute's Indonesian wife, Minhati Madrais, who was with her six children in a village in Iligan city, less than an hour's drive from Marawi.
Madrais is among the suspected militants and supporters who were ordered arrested after President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in the south in May to deal with the Marawi siege. Bomb-making materials were found in the house and she has an expired Indonesian passport, regional police Chief Superintendent Timoteo Pacleb said.
The Marawi siege reinforced fears that the Islamic State group is attempting to gain a foothold in Southeast Asia through local militants amid major battle setbacks in Syria and Iraq. Threats posed by the extremists are high on the agenda of an annual summit of Asian and Western leaders, including U.S. President Donald Trump, in Manila next week.