Philippines: Troops Retake Control of Marawi Grand Mosque

Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales
Marawi and Cotabato, Philippines
170825-PH-flush-620.JPG Smoke rises from the Marawi City Grand Mosque during battles in July.
Jeoffrey Maitem/BenarNews

Government troops flushed out militants allied with the Islamic State (IS) from a strategic mosque in the southern Philippine city of Marawi, the military said Friday.

Despite those efforts, troops did not locate dozens of hostages held by the gunmen who had retreated from the Marawi City Grand Mosque as the military closed in on Thursday.

The rebel commanders, led by the Islamic State’s acknowledged leader in the Philippines and Abu Sayyaf commander Isnilon Hapilon, are believed somewhere inside Marawi, a Muslim city in the mostly Catholic nation.

Marawi is virtually abandoned and in ruin since militants engaged in clashes with troops and more than 200,000 civilian residents fled with many scattered across several evacuation camps or staying with relatives in nearby areas.

Hapilon is said to be aided by members of the local Maute group as well as foreign militants from the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Since Hapilon and his men sacked the city and engaged troops in some of the fiercest combat the country has seen in years, a total of 596 rebel fighters and 129 soldiers have been killed along with 45 civilians, according to the military’s updated figures Friday.

Latest intelligence information states the enemy force has fallen to about 40 fighters from more than 600 when hostilities broke out on May 23, according to the military.

“There are still less than 400 buildings and structures that we need to clear. They might be hiding in one of these buildings,” Capt. Jo-ann Petinglay told BenarNews. “The retaking of the grand mosque is very significant because we did it without the use of our air assets.”

In addition to the mosque, Petinglay said government forces regained control of a nearby police station. The military cleared 38 other buildings on Tuesday and Wednesday, but until all the buildings are fully retaken and cleared, the government cannot claim it has taken control of the city.

Duterte: Offensive will continue

President Rodrigo Duterte, who earlier admitted to underestimating the rebel force, made a surprise trip to Marawi on Thursday to boost troop morale.

While he said he was not blaming the Marawi residents for the allowing outside forces including IS to influence local fighters, Duterte said they “allowed the rebellion to ripen here.”

“So they were building tunnels, they were stocking firearms and there was this recruitment,” Duterte said.

“I am not ready to talk peace at this time because I have lost many soldiers and policemen,” he said. “We have to end it the way it should be and we will not stop until the last terrorist is neutralized. That is the ultimate objective.”

Earlier, Duterte sought help from the United States and Australia to quell the rebellion and accepted offers from neighbors Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore to freeze the cross-border flow of militants. He placed the entire southern region under martial law, empowering the military in the region.

Even as troops continue to battle the Marawi militants, they have faced off against Abu Sayyaf militants on two fronts – on the islands of Basilan and Jolo to the west. Since the start of the month, the military has been helping a former separatist rebel group that signed a peace pact with Manila against a small group of fighters that have pledged IS alliance. Nearly 40 people have so far died in that battle front.

Where are the hostages?

In Manila, armed forces spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said the main battle area in Marawi has been reduced to “half a square kilometer grid” as troops were continuing to slowly advance.

He said efforts to regain control of the grand mosque began almost a month ago, but were hampered by concerns the battles could destroy the site and inflame local sensibilities.

“So having it under the hands of government provides us the impetus to symbolically say that we have retaken the center of the town,” he said.

On Thursday, the military carried out a surgical operation that took out installations around the mosque before a strong push was carried out.

“And in our entry to the grand mosque, there was resistance offered by the enemy who were holding the area, while the main forces of the enemy was retreating,” he told reporters. “We incurred three wounded in the process.

“Right now, we’re still clearing the facility of unexploded ordnance and IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that we found to be in abundance in the building itself,” he said.

Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.


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