Troops seize Grand Mosque
MARAWI CITY—Government troops have seized control of the Grand Mosque from Islamic State (IS)-linked gunmen following heavy fighting in the nearly 100-day-old battle to free Marawi City of militants, the military said on Friday.
Soldiers dislodged the Maute group fighters and their Abu Sayyaf allies from the mosque a few hours before President Duterte arrived on Thursday for his third visit to Marawi since the militants laid siege to the Islamic city on May 23.
Mr. Duterte, who wore a helmet and combat uniform and armed with an automatic rifle, said he visited troops in the war zone to show his solidarity with those fighting terrorists.
Speaking to reporters in Malacañang, Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesperson Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said the seizure of the mosque was a significant victory for the government.
The Grand Mosque is the biggest symbol of the Islamic city because of its prominence, Padilla said.
“So having it under the hands of government provides us the impetus to symbolically say that we have taken control of the center of the city,” he said.
The mosque also would be important in boosting the morale of the displaced Marawi residents who would eventually return to their homes.
“Our concept and the chief of staff’s idea on the matter is we will need the Grand Mosque to rally and to enlighten our citizens in Maranao, our fellow countrymen. They need to have a place to come to, to uplift their spirits,” he said.
Aware of the President’s directive not to harm places of worship in the battle for the city, the gunmen used the mosque to stockpile food during the monthslong fighting, according to several captives who have escaped.
Ranking leaders of the Maute group were among those who took shelter in the mosque with their hostages, including Fr. Teresito “Chito” Suganob, the vicar general of Marawi, according to earlier reports.
Capt. Jo-ann Petinglay, spokesperson for Task Force Marawi, said the gunmen put up fierce resistance to maintain control of the mosque until they fled with their hostages.
The military estimates there are around 40 militants still in Marawi and are holding about 30 hostages.
Padilla said three soldiers were wounded in the final assault on Thursday following a monthlong operation to encircle the mosque by taking control of surrounding structures.
He said in accordance with the President’s order, the military did not conduct a frontal attack on the mosque to avoid destroying it.
“It was not a frontal attack, but an envelopmental approach that targeted all nearby installations around the Grand Mosque so that we can constrict it,” he said.
Petinglay said the military’s MG 520 helicopter gunships, OV-10 bombers and FA50 jets pounded the area around the mosque to flush out the gunmen.
Police station, too
The military is now clearing the area of unexploded ordnance and improvised explosive devices that were found “in abundance in the building itself,” Padilla said.
Aside from the Grand Mosque, government forces have also regained control of the police headquarters in the center of the city, Petinglay said.
She said human remains believed to belong to Marawi deputy police director Senior Insp. Edwin Placido were found inside the building.
Placido was killed on the second day of the fighting when Maute gunmen stormed the city police headquarters and the nearby provincial jail.
“We have taken over strategic locations within the main battle area,” said Col. Romeo Brawner, deputy commander of Joint Task Group Ranao. “We can use these retaken areas to launch further assault against the enemies.”
The Grand Mosque is located in Pangarungan Village, about 700 meters from St. Mary’s Cathedral in Barangay Paypay. The gunmen had set the church on fire after smashing religious icons inside.
Paypay remains inaccessible to civilians, including journalists, because it has not been cleared yet, according to the military.
Brawner said the fighting appears to be coming to an end.
“There’s a big chance,” he said. “We are hopeful but we don’t have a deadline. We see that our troops are really pushing the Maute group into a smaller area.”
Aside from clearing the mosque and the police station of Maute gunmen, Petinglay said the military cleared 38 other buildings on Tuesday and Wednesday.
She said there were fewer than 400 buildings that the military needed to clear before it could declare full control of the city.
The battle for Marawi entered its 95th day on Friday, leaving 596 militants, 129 soldiers, marines and policemen, and 45 civilians dead.
In Maguindanao province, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters on Friday continue to battle their former comrades from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fights (BIFF) who have allied with the IS-linked gunmen.
The fighting in Datu Salibo town erupted on Aug. 10 when BIFF gunmen set off a bomb, wounding 10 MILF fighters. Around 20 MILF and 26 BIFF combatants had been killed.
Mohaqher Iqbal, former MILF chief peace negotiator, said fighting the BIFF was the MILF’s way of stopping the growing influence of the IS.
“We have lost several of our men in the fight against terrorism. Their presence is growing in Mindanao,” Iqbal said. —WITH A REPORT FROM LEILA B. SALAVERRIA
Inquirer calls for support for the victims in Marawi City
Responding to appeals for help, the Philippine Daily Inquirer is extending its relief to victims of the attacks in Marawi City
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