Troops retake Grand Mosque in Marawi

The Philippine Star
  Troops retake Grand Mosque in Marawi

Photo from News5AKSYON shows an aerial view of Marawi City’s Grand Mosque, which has been retaken by the military after three months of fighting.

DAVAO CITY , Philippines  – Government security forces moved closer to ending the battle for Marawi City by regaining control of the Grand Mosque located at the center of the battle zone on Thursday.

Shortly after retaking the mosque, the troops were surprised by President Duterte’s visit to the frontlines.

Clad in combat uniform, protective vest, helmet and sidearm, Duterte congratulated the troops for regaining control of the Grand Mosque, an indication they are entering the final stage of battle.

Troops on Wednesday recaptured the city police headquarters previously occupied by the terrorists.

Security officials could not stop Duterte from stepping into ground zero.

“It was really hard to bring him to where the action is, to where the battle is ongoing. It was really a security risk but the President threw all caution away and went ahead with his visit that made him see the real score on the ground,” a security official said.

Duterte’s visit on Thursday was the third time he set foot in the city amid the fighting between government forces and the Maute terrorists.

During his brief visit, Duterte inspected a devastated community near the frontlines and talked to troops guarding a recaptured building. He also visited a military patrol base and tried a sniper rifle and fired twice at the direction of the terrorists’ position.

Army Col. Romeo Brawner said Duterte went to the main battle area, a cluster of dense, mosque-dotted communities heavily damaged in the fighting. Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Eduardo Año and top commanders accompanied the President.

“I came here not exactly to defy the admonitions of my advisers,” Año quoted the President as saying to the troops.

“I am here once again to show – not just say – my unity with you. That much as you all are willing to die for your country with unquestioning resolve to follow the orders to ‘Charge!’ coming from your commander-in-chief, I am and I can be in the same muddy ground that you now stand; drenched like you under the same rain and somehow smell like you in this battleground,” the President said.

Part of Duterte’s visit to the frontlines was a visit to Task Force Trident under Maj. Gen. Danilo Pamonag where he gave away combat watches, Soldier’s Individual Packs and P5,000 for all the troops deployed in Marawi.

Año said the morale of the troops again soared with the latest visit of their “supreme commander” to Marawi City. 

AFP spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla also said the President’s visit to the frontlines boosted the morale of the troops.

He said the visit also signified Duterte is one with the troops in the fight against terrorism.

Padilla said the President wanted to congratulate the soldiers for the “very important operational achievements” they made in retaking the police station and the Grand Mosque, the city’s Islamic center.

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 priest, used by the gunmen as human shields.

The extremists had used the Grand Mosque as well as other mosques in the city as machine gun and sniper nests.

The military said up to 50 militants are still inside the mosque, holding 46 civilians hostage.

Mosques and other places of worship were excluded from the airstrike target list by the military.

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 troops.

“We recovered the mosque after some resistance but not through an assault with bombardment because we wanted to preserve the structure,” Brawner said.

Padilla said the troops had to rethink their strategy to recapture the mosque with the conscious effort to preserve the building.

“We did not conduct a frontal attack because we wanted to preserve the Grand Mosque, owing to the promise of our commander in chief, the President, and our chief of staff, who strongly provided guidance not to destroy any place of worship even if international protocols would allow us to do that,” Padilla said.

More than 760 people, including 595 militants, have died in the fighting. – With Christina Mendez, Roel Pareño, Michael Punongbayan, AFP

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