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Key Islamic State Militant Believed Killed in Southern Philippines

Soldiers on a military truck drive past houses and buildings damaged after government troops cleared the area from pro-Islamic State militant groups inside the war-torn Marawi city, southern Philippines, Oct. 19, 2017.

Philippine military officials say a top Islamic State militant is believed to have been killed by government forces who liberated the southern city of Marawi earlier this week.

Malaysian-born Mahmud Ahmad was among a group of 20 militants killed in a gun battle early Monday. A military spokesman says it is confident Ahmad was killed based on information provided by two hostages rescued after the firefight. His death will not be confirmed until his body is recovered and DNA tests are conducted.

Ahmad is a close associate of Isnilon Hapilon, who was Islamic State's leader in Southeast Asia until this week, when he and another key IS figure, Omarkhayam Maute, were both killed in a targeted military operation. Ahmad is believed to have funneled money and fighters to boost the group's siege of Marawi, a city of 200,000 located on the Muslim-dominated southern island of Mindanao.

Experts say Ahmad would likely take Hapilon's place as the Islamic State's point man in the region.

More than 1,000 people have been killed in Marawi since May 23, when Philippine security forces launched a mission to arrest Hapilon. The raid collapsed after a wave of militants stormed the city and went on a rampage, burning houses, Catholic churches and taking scores of hostages. Much of Marawi has been leveled by airstrikes aimed at bringing an end to the siege.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared Marawi "liberated from the terrorist influence" Tuesday during a visit to the besieged city. Military forces are still engaged in sporadic battles with a remaining, but dwindling group of militants.

The southern Philippines, particularly the resource-rich but poverty-wracked Mindanao region, has long been a hotbed of activity by the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf and other fundamentalist groups.