MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte traveled Thursday to the main battle zone in southern Marawi after Philippine troops finally recaptured a main mosque where Islamic State-linked militants had taken cover with their hostages in the three-month siege of the city, the military said.
Clad in a combat uniform, protective vest and helmet, Duterte congratulated the troops for regaining control of the Islamic Center, an indication they are nearing the final stage in ending the disastrous uprising. It was Duterte’s third known trip to the embattled city.
“I need to be with you to show my solidarity,” Duterte was quoted by officials as telling the troops.
Army Col. Romeo Brawner said Duterte went to the main battle area, a cluster of dense, mosque-dotted communities which has been heavily damaged in the fighting, and stayed for about two hours with military chief Gen. Eduardo Ano and top commanders.
More than 760 people, including 595 militants, have died in the Marawi fighting, which has sparked concerns that the Islamic State group may have taken a foothold in Southeast Asia through local extremists as it suffers battle setbacks in Syria and Iraq.
About 600 gunmen launched the insurrection in Marawi’s commercial center on May 23 after a botched army raid to capture the group’s leader, Isnilon Hapilon, according to the military.
The United States and Australia have deployed surveillance aircraft to help Filipino troops locate the hundreds of militants who took positions in buildings, mosques and houses, some of them linked by underground tunnels. China provided heavy weaponry and Southeast Asian governments offered aid for troops and the hundreds of thousands of displaced residents.
It was not immediately clear if any militants or their hostages were in the mosque when troops entered the building Thursday after weeks of painstakingly slow advances because of sniper fire and an order from Duterte to avoid any massive attack that might harm an estimated several dozen hostages, including a Roman Catholic priest, used by the gunmen as human shields.
Brawner said the militants withdrew shortly before troops gained access to the mosque in fighting that wounded three soldiers. He said the gunmen had rigged the building with booby-traps and explosives which were being cleared by the troops.
“We recovered the mosque after some resistance but not through an assault with bombardment because we wanted to preserve the structure,” Brawner said.
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