MANILA – The operation to gain control of the largest mosque in the strife-torn city of Marawi was not made on a whim but a product of a month-long “elaborate” mission, the Armed Forces of the Philippines said on Friday.
Troops on Thursday gained control of the Grand Mosque which was used as one of the main hideouts of Islamic State-inspired terrorists led by the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups.
“The Grand Mosque is the biggest and is symbolic of the Islamic nature of the city itself because of its prominence. So having it under the hands of government provides us the impetus to symbolically say that nakuha na natin ‘yung sentro mismo ng bayan,” AFP Spokesperson Brigadier General Restituto Padilla Jr. said in a news conference in Malacañang.
Padilla said state troops had to craft an “elaborate” plan to retake the mosque, a vital part of the largely Islamic city, so that it would retain its structural integrity.
“We did not conduct a frontal attack because we wanted to preserve the Grand Mosque. Hence, a very elaborate plan was prepared by our troops on the ground,” he said.
“Ito ‘yung sentro ng pananampalataya ng ating mga kababayan diyan. Kaya’t maganda na hindi ito nasira dahil ibabalik natin ito sa ating mga kapatid na Muslim,” he added.
Padilla said government troops adopted an “envelopmental approach” in carrying out the mission to retake the mosque, wherein soldiers take control of facilities and structures around the mosque as they inch their way towards their enemies.
The mission ended on Thursday, when state troops finally captured the mosque, resulting in an exchange of fire that left at least three government soldiers wounded.
“We did it in a very painstaking way and it had to be an assault on the ground using just the right firepower to quell enemy resistance,” Padilla said.
“There was resistance offered by the enemy who were holding the area, while the main forces of the enemy was retreating.”
Padilla said no terrorists or hostages were inside the mosque when state troops finally entered the structure.
He said the terrorists probably knew that government forces would push to take control of the mosque, which is why they made an evacuation plan.
Even as he refused to give a timeline for the end of the crisis, Padilla is confident victory is near for the Armed Forces, noting that the conflict is now limited to less than a square kilometer of the city.
The battle in Marawi has been raging since May 23, when Islamic State-inspired militants captured parts of the once-vibrant Islamic city. It has left nearly at least 770 dead, mostly terrorists.
The violent clashes prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to place Mindanao under martial law until the end of the year, saying the local terrorists were aiming to establish an Islamic State province in the Philippines.
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.