SOME hostages of the Islamic State-linked Maute terrorist group have been forced to join the fight against government troops in Marawi City, a military official said on Monday.
During the “Mindanao Hour” news briefing in Malacañang on Monday, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla Jr. said the Maute ranks have been reinforced by civilian hostages.
“The enemy’s strength per the last validation seemed to have increased from 60 to 80…because of news and information that indicated that perhaps some of the hostages previously held have been forced to join the ranks,” Padilla told reporters.
The Maute group is still holding between 40 to 60 hostages, the military said, based on the latest report of Joint Task Force Marawi.
The military earlier said civilians had been forced to help the gunmen by carrying supplies and ammunition, carrying their wounded and even helping loot the city, the country’s Islamic capital.
Hundreds of gunmen rampaged through Marawi, the main Muslim city in the mostly Catholic Philippines, on May 23 and then occupied key districts in what authorities said was an attempt to establish a Southeast Asian base for the Islamic State in the Philippines.
President Rodrigo Duterte imposed martial law across Mindanao in response to the crisis.
More than 860 people have been killed in the fighting, including 147 soldiers and police, 47 civilians and 699 terrorists, as of September 17, Sunday.
Padilla said the military was verifying information that some Maute fighters have sent surrender feelers following military efforts to convince them to yield through public address systems, text messages and even social media.
“Yes, there was unofficial and raw information that came to the attention of Joint Task Force Marawi that indicated the desire of some armed elements of the Maute group to lay down their arms and surrender. The information is part of those that are being verified by the Joint Task Force and subject to validation,” he said.
On Saturday, government troops retook Bato mosque and the Amaitul Islamiya Marawi Foundation, two Maute strongholds.
The military said troops did not find hostages inside the Bato mosque, only the body of a Maute group member. They also found several improvised explosive devices as well as cell phones that can be used to trigger the bombs.
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Eduardo Año said in a statement on Saturday the retaking of the two Maute strongholds “further weakened” the terror group.
Freed priest calls for prayers
A Catholic priest kidnapped by the Maute when they seized parts of Marawi nearly four months ago smiled and
declared himself “strong” Monday after escaping.
Fr. Teresito Suganob called for prayers at a press conference at military headquarters in Manila after he was rescued late on Saturday when the military said it overran the militants’ control center inside a mosque in Marawi City.
“Thank you and I pray for you, God bless you all. Pray for me, for my recovery,” said Suganob, 51, as he smiled and waved to reporters.
In a jocular mood despite his ordeal, the heavily bearded but apparently well-fed Suganob declared: “I am physically strong and handsome. That’s it for now.”
Suganob, a parish priest in Marawi commonly known as “Father Chito,” was taken hostage along with about 13 parishioners from a local cathedral on the first day of the fighting.
The militants later released a video showing themselves vandalizing the cathedral.
Another video released by his captors in late May showed Suganob standing in the rubble of buildings in Marawi asking President Duterte to withdraw troops and stop the military offensive.
‘Prisoners of war’
Upon his arrival in Manila, Suganob was accompanied by Task Group Ranao Deputy Commander Col. Romeo Brawner and Marawi Crisis Management Committee spokesman Zia Alonto Adiong. The priest was taken to Camp Aguinaldo.
Suganob said at the time that the gunmen were holding 240 “prisoners of war,” including teachers, carpenters and household workers. They were mostly Christians and local tribes people.
“We want to live another day. We want to live another month,” Suganob said in the video as gunfire was heard in the distance.
One escaped hostage later told authorities that Suganob had been forced to serve as a cook for the militants, according to the then-military spokesman Lt. Col. Jo-ar Herrera in early July.
This was one of many reports that the militants were forcing their hostages to work as slaves.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters that Suganob and another hostage, 29-year-old male school teacher Lordin Noblesa Acopio, escaped on Saturday night as the militants led by Omar Maute pulled out of a mosque following hours of fighting.
“As the intensity of the armed confrontation continued to escalate in favor of our troops and as the terrorists were busy repelling the attack, our troops had the opportunity to snatch Father Chito and Mr. Acopio,” Lorenzana said.
Año said the rescue of Suganob was a “very deliberate effort” and part of an “intelligence project supported by combat operations.”
Lorenzana and military chiefs predicted an end to the crisis soon.
“It is close, our soldiers on the ground are saying that we are near to finishing,” he said.
Nevertheless they conceded many obstacles remained, including improvised explosive devices and secret tunnels where the militants were hiding other hostages.
“The Bato mosque, underneath there are a lot of intricate tunnels and secret chambers so we are actually clearing those chambers and there are hostages in there,” Año said.
with DEMPSEY REYES AND AFP