The mobile-phone message of the Filipino police commandos to their base was triumphant: "Mike 1 bingo," a code meaning they had killed one of Southeast Asia's most wanted terror suspects, Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan. But the euphoria among police generals monitoring the January 25 dawn assault in a southern swampland was brief. As daybreak lifted their night cover, the young commandos came under intense rebel fire, trapped in the marshy fringes of a Muslim rebel stronghold about 2-3km from where backup police forces waited. Unable to carry Marwan's body, one of the commandos chopped off his finger and another took pictures as proof of his death, police officials said. Another policeman kept frantically calling for reinforcements by radio, but standby forces failed to penetrate the battle scenes and the pleas for help vanished. "There was radio silence, a very long silence," Chief Superintendent Noli Talino, who helped oversee the operation, said during Friday's eulogy. The fighting left 44 commandos dead - the biggest single-day combat loss by government forces in recent memory - and a familiar question: Is Marwan dead or alive? Commanders and a confidential police intelligence report say Marwan was killed, something they expect to be validated by DNA tests. A purported picture of the slain militant circulating in the local media closely resembled Marwan's profile in "wanted" posters. But many remained sceptical. In 2012, the Philippine military announced that Marwan and a Singaporean militant known as Mauwiyah were killed, along with a Filipino Abu Sayyaf extremist commander, in a US-backed air strike on Jolo island. Philippine police intelligence officials, however, believed Marwan and Mauwiyah survived and continued hunting them. They have since launched at least two major secret attempts to capture Marwan in the southern Philippines, where according to US authorities, he has been hiding since 2003. A US-educated engineer, believed to have been born in the town of Muar in Malaysia's Johor province in 1966, Marwan is among the last few known surviving militants of his generation of al-Qaeda-inspired extremists who survived the anti-terrorism crackdowns in Asia after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US. Known as a master bomb-maker, Marwan was also very skilled in evading capture. He had more than two dozen aliases and spoke the languages of Malaysia and the Philippines, along with English and Arabic. Marwan used to head a terrorist group called the Kumpulun Mujahidin Malaysia, and also was a senior member of the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiah terrorist network, according to the US State Department, which offered a US$5 million bounty for his capture and prosecution. The JI was blamed for the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people, including 11 Hong Kong residents. Even before the latest raid, the commandos tried but failed to capture Marwan near the community last year. Military officials have long suspected that he eluded arrest by taking cover near rebel strongholds. Last Sunday night, the police commandos did not notify the local Muslim rebels of the raid, officials said. Talino, the police commander, asked during the eulogy whether it was worth sacrificing 44 elite police troopers to get an international terrorist. "We live by our motto: We save," he said, holding back tears. "I'm sure if you will ask them, it is worth it."