Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte visited troops in the southern city of Marawi Aug. 24 a few hours after soldiers took control of the grand mosque, the last stronghold of Islamic State-inspired rebels. Rebels have also withdrawn from the police station, which they held during three months of fighting, said Col. Romeo Brawner, deputy commander of a military joint task force overseeing operations against the militants. The local military command said three soldiers were injured in the retaking of the mosque. Officials were silent about the IS-inspired group's casualties and the fate of some 40 hostages, including Father Teresito Soganub, vicar-general of the Prelature of Marawi. A military official, who sought anonymity, told reporters that militants were still around the city’s lake area and had regrouped in structures at the rear of the mosque. "It seems they fell back to positions at the rear part of the mosque. They’ve been pushed back towards the lake which is actually what we want them to do," he said. The navy and other military units started patrolling Lake Lanao, Mindanao’s largest, last month to prevent the rebels escaping. A shortage of military transport is a major challenge as the government struggles to prevent fighters from mobilizing in at least 16 towns around the 340 square kilometer body of water. Duterte, in camouflage uniform with a flak vest and helmet, stayed in Marawi for two hours. He toured villages already controlled by government troops and later handed out cash rewards and gift packs to soldiers. A video released by the president's communications office showed his convoy weaving through streets full of bomb craters as he inspected the crumbling remains of once thriving residential and commercial blocks. Military chief Gen. Eduardo Ano, Army chief Lt. Gen. Glorioso Miranda, and National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon accompanied the president on his third visit since the conflict broke out on May 23. Watch this video from the Presidential Communications (Government of the Philippines).
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Duterte said expressed solidarity with troops and grief over the deaths of soldiers. Some 700 people have died in the fighting, including 129 soldiers and 45 civilians. Duterte described Marawi as a watershed in the country’s fight against Islamic extremists and urged the military to prepare for more urban warfare in the months ahead. "The counter-insurgency campaign will not stop until the last terrorist is neutralized," the president vowed. He again linked the upsurge in extremism with the trade in illegal drugs. Duterte said his government would hold no talks with the IS-inspired group. His defense chief turned down this week an offer of dialogue facilitated by the head of the presidential office for the peace process on behalf of a politician linked to the unrest. The military is still clearing the mosque and surrounding areas of booby traps left behind by withdrawing enemy fighters. The government spared the mosque from aerial bombardment so as not to inflame passions of residents angered by the destruction of their city. Officials described the retaking of the police station and 29 other structures on Aug. 22 as a "strategic victory." Soldiers failed to recover firearms or other war materials, indicating an orderly withdrawal by enemy fighters. Despite the good news, armed forces spokesman, Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said there remained some 300 buildings that still need to be cleared of stragglers and explosives.