Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made a surprise visit to the wartorn city of Marawi on Thursday where troops are still engaged in a brutal fight to crush Islamic State group-inspired militants.
Duterte flew by helicopter into the local military headquarters in a show of support for troops who have been engaged in an almost two month-long battle that has claimed over 500 lives.
“He really showed his courage, he showed his strong support for our soldiers in their fight in Marawi City,” said Lieutenant Colonel Jo-ar Herrera, spokesman of military forces in the warzone.
“It boosted morale and the fighting spirit of the men and women of Task Force Marawi,” Herrera told local media.
Duterte, who was dressed in military camouflage, thanked the soldiers for their efforts and gave out watches and other gifts to cheer the soldiers up, Herrera added.
The president, who declared martial law over the southern Philippines as the fighting began on May 23, stayed inside the camp, inspecting firearms seized from the militants, before departing, the spokesman said.
The fighting in the southern city of Marawi, the Muslim capital of the largely Catholic Philippines, has become the greatest challenge facing Duterte, the first president to hail from the country’s troubled south.
The president has asked lawmakers to allow him to extend martial law over the south until the end of the year to deal with the militant threat but critics fear this would edge the country closer to dictatorship.
The militants, who fly the black flag of the IS, have occupied large parts of Marawi for almost two months, defying airstrikes and artillery barrages, with parts of the city of 200,000 people left in ruins.
The government on Thursday said at least 421 militants had been killed in the fighting which has also claimed the lives of 99 soldiers and police, as well as 45 civilians.
The extremists continue to occupy parts of the city with about 300 civilians still trapped or held hostage by the gunmen.
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