By FRANCIS WAKEFIELD
Philippine forces battling Islamic State group supporters in Marawi have scored a major victory when they captured the militants’ command center following a deadly battle that began Saturday in a mosque and another building.
While troops moved in for the final push, Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) Secretary Jess Dureza announced the rescue of Fr. Teresito Suganob and an unidentified companion near the Bato mosque at about 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
In his Facebook post, Dureza said the information was relayed to him by former Iligan Mayor Franklin Quijano. There was no other available information.
The military, however, did not confirm or deny Dureza’s announcement except saying it is still verifying the report.
In a statement, Armed Forces of the Philippines-Public Affairs Office (AFP-PAO) chief Marine Col. Edgard Arevalo, said that they still cannot provide any details in order not to jeopardize the lives of the soldiers and other hostages there.
He added that the rescue operations are still ongoing in the area.
“We have ongoing rescue operations at the Main Battle Area. (But) we cannot give you details as of now lest we imperil the lives not only of our soldiers but more so that of the hostages,” Arevalo said.
Security forces have engaged in ferocious street to street combat and launched airstrikes in their efforts to expel the fighters from the city of Marawi.
The fall of the militants’ control center could signal the impending end of the siege that started nearly four months ago.
“This enormous (military) gain further weakened the terrorist group by denying them their erstwhile command and control hub,’’ military chief General Eduardo Año said in a statement.
“As follow up and clearing operations continue, we expect the enemy to yield more previously occupied positions, but not without a fight,’’ he said. “We are ready for that.’’
Hundreds of armed extremists flying the black flag of the Islamic State movement in the Middle East occupied Marawi, the Islamic capital of the mainly Catholic Philippines, on May 23.
More than 800 militants, government troops and civilians have since been killed in the conflict, which has forced thousands to flee their homes and destroyed large parts of the once-bustling city.
President Duterte has deployed thousands of troops and imposed martial law across the southern third of the country to deal with the crisis, while the military has launched a US-backed air campaign against the militants.