Islamic State’s emir in Southeast Asia Isnilon Hapilon has been killed in offensive by Philippine troops, the country’s defence secretary claimed on Monday.
His death deals a blow to Isil’s reported ambition to create a regional base to carry out terrorist activities across Asia.
Minster Delfin Lorenza said Hapilon had been killed alongside Omar Maute, leader of the Isil-linked Maute group, during a final push to retake the southern Muslim city of Marawi, which has been besieged by Islamist militants since May.
“We have received a report from AFP ground commanders in Marawi that the operation…has resulted in the death of the last terrorist leaders Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute, and that their bodies have been recovered by our operating units,” he said in a statement.
He added that the “termination” of the five month battle would be confirmed when government forces were sure there were no more “terrorist-stragglers” and had cleared buildings of IEDs and booby traps. So far 822 militants, 162 troops and 47 civilians have been killed.
Over 360,000 civilians have been forced to flee the fighting, with many currently living in temporary camps across the southern province of Mindanao. Over one third of the cities buildings have been destroyed by fierce fighting and military airstrikes.
Hapilon, 51, rose to prominence when he was endorsed as Isil emir in 2016. He was already the commander of the local Abu Sayyaf terrorist group and wanted for piracy and beheadings.
Abu Sayyaf is responsible for the beheadings of Canadians Robert Hall and John Ridsdel, and of German tourist Jurgen Kanter, 71, who was murdered earlier this year.
Hapilon fought alongside the Isil-inspired Maute group to capture Marawi, with Isil appealing for Muslim brothers in East Asia to join the jihad.
Both Hapilon and Omar Maute have been declared dead before. Maute was reportedly killed in June, but it was later discovered that he had only been injured. Hapilon was said to have died in battle in a battle in Basilan a few years ago, when, in fac,t it was his son.
Meanwhile, the Philippines has announced it will join neighbouring Indonesia and Malaysia in coordinated air patrols to combat the growing threat posed by Islamist militants.