MANILA, Aug. 25 (Xinhua) -- Philippine government forces are continuing to advance against pro-Islamic State (IS) extremists that occupied the southern Philippines Marawi City more than three months ago as the battle continues to drive IS fighters out of the last remaining strongholds they control in the city, a military spokesman said on Friday.
"The enemy's world is getting smaller," military spokesman Brig. Gen. Resituto Padilla told a news conference at the Malacanang presidential palace.
Padilla said the troops continue to contain "the main battle area to half a square kilometer grid ... We continue to clear other parts of the city and press on to the inner sanctum of the enemy," he said, adding "We're doing our best to end this crisis as soon as possible."
However, he added that "these are delicate operations that we need to do slowly. The cases of unexploded ordnance, IEDs (improvised explosive devices) in every room, in every corner, are matters that put our troops in danger every minute of the day."
He said troops successfully seized on Thursday the city's biggest mosque that militants used as "safe haven" and "main staging point" in fighting government security forces. Militants used the mosque as "observation tower and sniper nest," he said, adding that civilian hostages were believed to have been kept there as human shields.
Aside from the mosque, he said the troops also recaptured this week the police station that militants occupied when they attacked the city on May 23.
He said the seizure of the mosque and the police station was "very important operational achievements" for the troops this week, paving the "road to liberation" of Marawi.
The two installations, which are located in the heart of the city, are very strategic and deemed as "symbols of authority over the city," he said.
The conflict, which broke out on May 23, has so far killed 770 people, including 129 soldiers and policemen, and wounded more than 1,000 others. The military said that nearly 600 extremists have also been killed in the conflict.
The war has also displaced an estimated 500,000 residents, the government said.
Padilla said that the militants are still holding some 30 civilian hostages.
"While we are moving towards the inner area, we expect this (clearing) to become slower because of the enemy presence in the area," Padilla said, adding that there are an estimated 50 militants as of the last military estimate.
Padilla has earlier said about 300 more buildings and establishments have yet to be cleared before the government could take control of the entire city.
A few hours after the military recaptured the mosque on Thursday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, clad in fatigues and wearing a military helmet and bullet-proof vest, landed in the war-ravaged city. It was his third visit since the conflict broke out in the city.
"We will not stop until the last terrorist is neutralized," Duterte told reporters in Marawi.
The Malacanang presidential office said in a statement that Duterte's visit was to boost the morale of the troops.
During his two-hour visit, the statement said the Philippine leader "shared words of encouragement to the troops and vowed anew that he will cover the educational expense for their children."
Like his previous visits, it said Duterte also "handed financial assistance, food packs and watches."
"Not minding the dangers of the ongoing battle to reclaim Marawi City from the terrorists, (Duterte) ordered his convoy to stop at an area outside the safe zone so he could inspect the damage near ground zero and talk to the troops guarding the buildings which were previously occupied by terrorists from the Maute Group," the statement read.
While in Marawi, Malananang said Duterte also made a stopover at a temporary patrol base "where he tried out a sniper rifle and fired it towards the direction of the enemies."
Asked why Duterte fired a sniper rifle, Padilla said, "He just wanted perhaps to show the troops that he was with them every step of the way."
The brutal fight to rid Marawi of IS fighters has left the only Islamic southern Philippine city in ruins.
TV footage showed neighborhoods almost flattened with most of the houses and buildings destroyed to rubbles or pockmarked by bullets. Many houses and buildings abandoned by residents were riddled with bullet holes and deemed uninhabitable.
Indeed, the level of destruction is believed to be higher. The government has yet to make an assessment of the damage.
The Maute group joined forces with another extremist group Abu Sayyaf to launch the May 23 attack that caught the government by surprise.
The military said extremists from overseas also helped the local terrorists in staging the blitzkrieg that broke out while Duterte, his cabinet members, his senior security and military aides were in Russia for a visit.
The attack forced Duterte to cut short his trip to Russia and re-scheduled his meetings there to return to the Philippines.