MARAWI CITY/CLARK, Philippines, Oct 23 (Reuters): The Philippines on Monday announced the end of five months of military operations in a southern city held by pro-Islamic State rebels, after a fierce and unfamiliar urban war that has marked the country's biggest security crisis in years.
Offensive combat operations were terminated after troops put a stop to the last stand of rebel gunmen who clung on inside several buildings in the heart of Marawi, and refused to surrender.
Artillery and automatic gunfire were still heard on Monday and Reuters journalists saw flames behind a mosque. The bodies of 40 fighters and two of their wives were found there and in two buildings close by.
Ernesto Abella, spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte, said the Philippines had prevailed against "the most serious threat of violent extremism and radicalism in the Philippines and in Southeast Asia".
Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the security forces had "nipped the budding infrastructure" of extremist groups.
"In crushing thus far the most serious attempt to export violent extremism and radicalism in the Philippines and in the region, we have contributed to preventing its spread in Asia," Lorenzana said in Clark at a meeting of regional defence ministers.
The rebel occupation stunned a military inexperienced in urban combat and stoked wider concerns that Islamic State loyalists have gained influence among local Muslims and have ambitions to use the island of Mindanao as a base for operations in Southeast Asia.
Those fears are compounded by the organisation of the militant alliance and its ability to recruit young fighters, lure foreign radicals, stockpile huge amounts of arms and endure 154 days of ground offensive and air strikes.
The authorities said 920 militants, 165 troops and police and at least 45 civilians were killed in the conflict, which displaced more than 300,000 people.