Philippine troops said Sunday they had recovered a Roman Catholic priest held captive in Marawi, as the government moved closer to defeating Islamic State-inspired militants who had seized the country’s only Muslim city in the south.
Father Teresito “Chito” Suganob scampered away as troops fought Abu Sayyaf and Maute gunmen holed up in a mosque Saturday night. The military said that amid the confusion, Suganob escaped and was picked up by troops who immediately took him to safety.
“It is confirmed that he is free,” presidential adviser Jesus Dureza told BenarNews, but declined to give further details surrounding Suganob’s recovery.
Suganob, the vicar general of Marawi, was taken captive on May 23 by Abu Sayyaf and Maute gunmen who attacked the city, which has been transformed into a virtual ghost town with nearly all of its 200,000 residents fleeing to safety.
He was among dozens of hostages the gunmen took and used as human shields, as they engaged troops in fierce gun battles that left 668 militants, 149 soldiers and 47 civilians dead as of Saturday.
The Prelature of Marawi said Suganob was secured before midnight Saturday, near Bato Mosque in Marawi City, together with one other undisclosed companion. They are the first of the Marawi hostages known to have escaped.
“Fr. Chito has always been an inspiration to us all in Marawi. News of his release certainly pushes us more to work for peace in Marawi City,” said Diovelene Francisco, a student at Mindanao State University who is a church volunteer.
Suganob was seized from a Catholic cathedral along with several church volunteers. The gunmen later grouped them with dozens of other hostages they seized, including women and children.
The announcement of the release Sunday came as the military was pushing hard to end the Marawi crisis, the biggest security threat to test the year-old administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.
Duterte had admitted that the military was taken by surprise by the attack, which broke out as he was on a foreign trip to Russia with his top generals.
Two weeks ago, the military recaptured Marawi’s Grand Mosque, where the gunmen had hid along with their hostages, backed by several fighters from Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
And on Friday, troops also took back the Bato Mosque and a structure owned by the Amaitul Islamiya Marawi Foundation, two more buildings considered enemy strongholds that were retaken after a five-hour battle.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that the fighting was nearing its end, although he declined to give a specific time frame. The military had earlier missed three self-imposed deadlines they had publicly announced.
“There’s only little resistance left,” he said. “That’s why I’ve been told [by] my ground commanders that the end is near. Just a little more patience.”
There was no mention of the fates of Isnilon Hapilon, an Abu Sayyaf commander and the acknowledged Islamic State leader in the region who had repeatedly managed to elude government forces, or of the Maute group leaders.