Islamic State-backed gunmen who laid siege to the southern Philippine city of Marawi have beheaded four civilian hostages, the military said Monday, citing witnesses.
The military said civilians who had been extricated from the war zone during the weekend told officials that four civilians were beheaded by the Maute and Abu Sayyaf group.
"This puts the total number of civilians killed by the terrorists at 30," a military official who requested anonymity told BenarNews.
He said Teresito Suganob, a Catholic priest taken hostage by the militants, had been seen alive as of last Friday, weeks after he went on air apparently under duress and appealed on the government to stop its airstrikes on rebel-held areas in Marawi.
Separately, a BenarNews source who had met with the gunmen in a mission sanctioned by security officials during the weekend said that one of the militant leaders, Abdullah Maute, told him that Suganob was alive, but would only be freed in exchange for the release of his parents.
Suganob and some church workers were taken by the Maute-led gunmen when the violence broke out on May 23.
In his earlier videotaped message, Suganob said that about 200 other civilians, including some children, were being held by the militants.
Forced to seek help
Fighting erupted when the police and military were sent in to capture Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, the acknowledged IS leader in the country.
But the planned arrest was foiled because Hapilon’s force was backed up by extremists belonging to the Maute gang and several foreign fighters, including militants from Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the Middle East.
A video later recovered by the military showed Hapilon planning the attack with the Maute brothers and several others, including Malaysian terrorist Mahmud Ahmad, an Islamic State leader in the region who allegedly financed the Marawi attack.
More than a month of vicious firefights had transformed Marawi into the biggest internal security crisis in the Philippines, amid intelligence reports the IS was trying to gain a foothold in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation.
At the start of the siege, President Rodrigo Duterte placed the entire southern region of Mindanao under martial law, giving the military police powers to regain control of Marawi, a once prosperous lakeside trading center in the south. He has also been forced to seek help from the United States and Australia, two countries that he had earlier publicly insulted.
American P3 Orion spy planes have been providing intelligence help, although U.S. forces on the ground are barred from joining combat. Australia, too, has said it was ready to provide intelligence assistance.
Omarkhayam Maute dead?
On Friday, the military said it had received reports that Ahmad, as well as Abdullah’s brother Omarkhayam Maute, had been killed in the intense clashes. The Malaysian government however said it could not confirm the information.
At the height of the violence early this month, the parents of Abdullah and Omarkhayam were arrested separately as they fled the fighting, which has transformed the mostly Muslim city of 200,000 into a virtual ghost town.
The BenarNews source who spoke with Abdullah Maute on the weekend said he tried to inquire about Omarkhayam, but did not get a reply.
In Manila, military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said the government death toll has reached 70, with one soldier dying of his wounds at the hospital at the weekend.
“Such a high price to pay for the liberation of Marawi,” he said. “But we remain undeterred and will carry the fight until our mission is completed.”
The military could not categorically say how many civilians are being held hostage, but intelligence information has indicated about 100, including Suganob. Between 300 and 500 people are also believed trapped in the crossfire.
At least 290 gunmen have also been killed in the violence, which is now in its fifth week, with no immediate signs of ending.
Felipe Villamor contributed to this report in Manila.