Philippine troops are bracing themselves for one last push to retake Marawi from Muslim militants who overran the southern city more than three months ago.
"We're preparing for one big battle," General Eduardo Ano, the military chief, told reporters yesterday. He said he expects the gunmen still holed up in a small pocket inside the city to fight to the last man.
"Do or die. We expect no less from them," he said.
Gen Ano declined to say when the final assault would take place, saying it is up to his ground commanders. Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, the military spokesman, said security forces had boxed the militants inside a 0.5km area.
Security forces have been battling hundreds of militants allied with the ultra-radical Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that overran Marawi on May 23, after a botched army raid to capture their leader, Isnilon Hapilon.
More than 770 people, including 603 militants, 130 soldiers and policemen, and 45 civilians, have died in the fighting, which has sparked concerns that ISIS may have gained a foothold in South-east Asia through local extremists, after suffering battle setbacks in Syria and Iraq.
Spokesman of Task Force Marawi Jo-ann Petinglay reported yesterday that security forces recaptured on Friday a Catholic cathedral seen in an ISIS video being vandalised by the militants early on in the fighting. This came a day after the army retook the grand mosque and a police station.
Meanwhile, at least 10 extremists attempting to reinforce those holed up in Marawi by entering by boat via Lake Lanao were intercepted and killed yesterday, Captain Petinglay said.
For Mr Jose Antonio Custodio, a defence analyst, retaking Marawi marks the start of a long journey of fighting Islamist extremism in southern Philippines.
"This is not going to end any time soon," he said, adding that even if the military is able to flush the militants out of Marawi, remnants of the Maute group, which led the May 23 attack, remain in other parts of Lanao province.
"Their areas of influence have not been neutralised," he said.
He added that those who died fighting in Marawi are now serving as "a source of inspiration" for Maranaos, the ethnic Muslim group that form the majority of Marawi's population and are disgruntled by the bombing of their city and purported abuses by soldiers.
"From a guerilla standpoint," he said, "(the militants) won."
Mr Custodio said the challenge the government faces is to "win the hearts and minds of the Maranaos by speeding up in an effective manner development aid and rehabilitation".