MANILA - About 200 civilians remain unaccounted for in Marawi City more than three months since the crisis erupted, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said Friday.
AFP Spokesperson Brigadier General Restituto Padilla Jr. said the figure is out of the roughly 2,000 civilians reported unaccounted for at the start of the crisis in May.
Padilla said those unaccounted for include civilians taken hostage by terrorists, those still trapped in the main battle area, and those whose bodies have yet to be claimed by their relatives.
He said about 30 of these civilians are believed to remain captives by Islamic State-inspired terrorists, led by the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups.
“We will seek to rescue the hostages and we will do our best to quell the remaining resistance,” Padilla said in a news conference in Malacañang.
As the crisis in Marawi entered its fourth month, Padilla said government troops have managed to contain the conflict to less than a square kilometer of the city.
State forces scored a major victory on Thursday, when the military gained control of the Grand Mosque, the largest in the city which the terrorists used as one of their main hideouts. The troops have also managed to retake the city’s police station.
“The Grand Mosque is located in the central area of Marawi. It is the most significant landmark, being the biggest mosque in the area,” Padilla said.
“Having it under the hands of the government provides us the impetus to symbolically say na nakuha na natin ang sentro mismo ng bayan. Ganoon din ang Marawi Police Station, because ito ay place of authority.”
The battle in Marawi has been raging on since May 23, when Islamic State-inspired militants captured parts of the once vibrant Islamic city. The conflict has left at least 770 dead, mostly terrorists.
The violent clashes prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to place the entire Mindanao under martial law until the end of the year, saying local terrorists were aiming to establish an Islamic State province in the Philippines.
The Commander-in-Chief visited the conflict zone for the third time on Thursday, even trying his hand at a sniper rifle and firing towards the enemy's direction.
The emergence of groups pledging allegiance to Islamic State has been considered the biggest security problem to face the year-old Duterte administration.
The rise of pro-Islamic State groups in the country has also raised alarm in Washington and the Philippines’ neighbors in the region, which fear that the notorious terror group was seeking to establish a new front in Asia amid its successive losses in Iraq and Syria.