Philippine troops have captured a key bridge leading to the main position of Islamic State group-linked militants in the southern city of Marawi but won't stage a major assault and will instead press efforts to rescue civilian hostages, an official said Monday.
Government troops gained control last week of Mapandi bridge, which leads to Marawi's interior business district, where just 40 to 60 remaining militants are believed to be holding 80 to 100 hostages, mostly in a large mosque, said military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla. But a major assault wasn't imminent, he said.
"We now have direct access to ground zero," Padilla said at a news conference in Manila, referring to the bridge over Marawi's Agus River that can now be used to rapidly transport troops and combat supplies. "Our main objective is to rescue the hostages."
President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered troops to ensure the safety of the hostages and not launch a massive assault that can endanger the captives even if that prolongs the militant siege, which has already dragged for more than two months. More than 650 people have died in the violence, including 45 civilians.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana expressed fears Monday that the militants, who have been using their hostages as human shields, may force some of the captives to serve as suicide bombers. "That's one of the fears of our soldiers — they may let loose the civilians but force them to carry bombs," Lorenzana told reporters.