With the retaking of Marawi city's grand mosque early on Thursday, the Philippine military said yesterday it has finally tipped the scale and is nearing the final stage of the campaign against an uprising by ISIS-linked militants seeking a foothold in South-east Asia.
"The grand mosque is the biggest and is symbolic of the Islamic nature of the city itself because of its prominence. Having it under the hands of the government provides an impetus to symbolically say that we have captured the centre of the city… The enemy's world is getting smaller," Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla told reporters.
The mosque, which houses the Masjed Mindanao Islamic Centre, had been used by militants from the Maute terrorist group as a shelter, stockade, sniper's nest and holding area for their hostages. Satellite images show that the area around it has been reduced to rubble. The army had avoided bombing it out of respect for Muslims.
Brig-Gen Padilla said retaking the mosque took a month because troops had to secure districts around it before they could stage an assault. Three soldiers were wounded in the final push to retake it. No hostages were found, however, and the gunmen defending the mosque apparently managed to flee.
Nine other buildings were cleared yesterday, including a police station.
Security forces have been battling hundreds of Maute-led fighters who overran Marawi on May 23, after a botched army raid to capture their leader, Isnilon Hapilon.
More than 760 people, including 595 militants and 129 soldiers and policemen, have died in the fighting, which sparked concerns that ISIS had taken a foothold in South-east Asia through local extremists as it reels from setbacks on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq.
CITY CENTRE CAPTURED
Having it under the hands of the government provides an impetus to symbolically say that we have captured the centre of the city.
BRIGADIER-GENERAL RESTITUTO PADILLA, on reclaiming the grand mosque.
Brig-Gen Padilla said the remaining militants have been cornered into a 0.5 sq km grid in Marawi.
He added: "This will be over soon. We just can't say exactly when."
President Rodrigo Duterte travelled to the main battle zone yesterday afternoon.
Clad in a combat uniform, protective vest and helmet, he congratulated the troops for regaining control of the mosque.
A photo released by his office showed Mr Duterte inside a bunker, holding a sniper rifle.
Brig-Gen Padilla said was he was given a "live target" at a position still held by the militants and that he fired twice.
"Whether there was a target hit, they did not say," he said.
Addressing soldiers fighting in Marawi, Mr Duterte said: "We have to end it the way it should be…. We will not stop until the last terrorist is neutralised."