Manila (AFP) - Philippine troops have seized 59 suspected militants trying to reinforce Islamist gunmen holed up in the southern city of Marawai who have been battling government forces for more than two months, military officials said Friday.
The capture of the "suspicious persons" in the troubled Mindanao region has raised questions about how the Islamic State-inspired fighters have been able to hold out in Marawi for almost 70 days.
Thirty-two suspected militants were arrested at a military checkpoint in Ipil town while 27 others were taken at a house in Zamboanga City on Tuesday, regional military spokeswoman Captain Jo-Ann Petinglay said.
A total 59 police and military uniforms were also seized from the suspects, a military statement added.
The group is suspected of planning to sneak into Marawi to help militants who have been on a rampage since May 23, battling government troops, holding numerous hostages and burning buildings while flying the black IS flag.
"They (the troops) have just prevented these individuals from potentially compounding the operational challenges in Marawi should they (have) succeeded in sneaking into the city," a military statement quoted Lieutenant General Carlito Galvez, commander of the troops in Marawi, as saying.
He credited local governments and residents for reporting the suspects.
Although the government initially said there were only a few hundred militants in Marawi, the gunmen have held off the armed forces for weeks, resisting air strikes and artillery barrages.
The militants have surprised the military with their resilience and their continued supply of manpower, weapons and ammunition despite supposedly being surrounded.
Petinglay said those arrested were all Filipinos but their backgrounds were still being checked.
The fighting has so far claimed 630 lives, including 471 militants, 45 civilians and 114 government troops, military spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla said in Manila on Friday.
He told reporters that there were only about 60 militants left, confined to less than one square kilometre (0.4 square miles) of the city.
However Padilla did not say how much longer the fighting would last.
Galvez said efforts to secure the warzone were boosted by President Rodrigo Duterte's controversial declaration of martial law over the entire southern third of the country when the fighting broke out.
By law, martial law should have lasted only 60 days but last week Congress extended it till the end of the year.
"With martial law in force in entire Mindanao, we can validly restrict and effect arrests of suspicious persons and unscrupulous groups whose actions bear with the rebellion," Galvez was quoted as saying.