A Catholic priest among an estimated 300 hostages being held by extremists in the southern Philippine city of Marawi was reported to be alive but in failing health, a religious group said Thursday.
Teresito Suganob, the vicar-general of Marawi, was taken hostage along with several church workers when the Islamic State-linked gunmen attacked the city on May 23, allegedly as part of an aborted plan to turn it into a “wilayat,” or province, of IS in the Philippines.
Sister Maria Luz Mallo, executive secretary of Sisters Association in Mindanao (SAMIN), told BenarNews that they had received word about Suganob’s welfare.
“He is still alive from what we have been told from the inside,” Mallo said, referring to church sources who had seen the priest. “He has lost weight because of lack of food as well as his horrible experience. We continue to appeal for the release of all hostages.”
Gunmen led by Abu Sayyaf commander Isnilon Hapilon, the acknowledged leader of the IS affiliate in the Philippines, and fighters from the local Maute group, launched a citywide campaign of violence after repelling a government offensive that targeted him for arrest.
Backed by an undetermined number of fighters from Southeast Asia and the Middle East, the extremists swept through the city of 200,000, burning structures, taking over vital installations, beheading non-Muslims and seizing a large group of civilians.
Mounting death toll
President Rodrigo Duterte has publicly admitted that the government was surprised by the rebel firepower, and the military has so far missed three deadlines it had set to end the siege.
Last week, Congress granted Duterte’s request to extend martial law in the entire southern island of Mindanao until December to deal with the crisis.
Duterte has also been forced to accept intelligence help from the United States, Australia and Singapore, an embarrassing turn of events for the tough-talking, 72-year-old leader who has been critical of Western military assistance.
The clashes so far have left 460 militants, 111 soldiers and 45 civilians dead, the government said on Wednesday.
Nine of the soldiers were killed last week, one of the biggest single-day casualties, underscoring the difficulty of re-taking the city from the militants, who still cling on to parts of it after more than two months of fighting.
Suganob was believed to be held along with dozens of hostages, including church workers, teachers and children, military officials said.
Duterte last week said the gunmen were holding about 300 hostages, who could be placed in harm’s way if he ordered a strong military push.
Earlier, a leader of the Maute gang said he would free Suganob and several hostages in exchange for his parents who were arrested separately by the government last month.
The government rejected the deal.
Philippine Marines patrol an area formerly controlled by Islamic State-inspired militants in the southern city of Marawi, July 2017. [Froilan Gallardo/BenarNews]
Militants rig buildings with bombs
On Thursday, the military said that retreating militants had rigged buildings and structures they had abandoned with booby traps, including unexploded ordnance fashioned as improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
“The efforts to clear structures of deadly IEDs is a dangerous task,” said regional military commander Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez.
He said Marawi residents would not be allowed to return to their homes until after it was cleared.
“We put premium on the lives of people and they need to go back safely,” he said. “We cannot put the lives of our Marawi residents in peril because of the IEDs.”