ZAMBOANGA CITY – A Catholic priest and a civilian held hostage by local IS militants escaped from their captors and recovered by troops from the besieged city of Marawi in southern Philippines where fierce fighting is nearing its fifth month.
Father Teresito Suganob, the vicar general of Marawi; and Lordvin Ocopio, who teaches at the Dansalan College Foundation Incorporated, escaped late Friday from a mosque used by militants as a base to attack soldiers.
Presidential Peace Process Adviser Jesus Dureza made the announcement on his Facebook account on Sunday, ahead of an official statement from the military or President Rodrigo Duterte.
Col. Edgard Arevalo, military public affairs chief, said in a separate statement that the Bato Mosque, considered the second grand one, was retaken at 5 p.m. on Saturday, after five hours of fighting between state forces and terrorists.
Suganob was recovered after military troops seized the mosque, the military said.
There was no information on the fate of other hostages that Suganob said could reach more than 200, including six other teachers from Dansalan College, when he appealed to Duterte on a video released by IS in May as proof of life.
In the 5-minute clip, the priest appealed to the President to immediately withdraw thousands of soldiers from the war-torn Marawi City.
Suganob said militants seized him, along with other church workers, including children and adults, mostly Christians, when militants occupied Marawi on May 23.
Speaking outside the ruins of buildings destroyed in fierce clashes, Suganob made an emotional appeal to Duterte to save all of them, saying, the militants are ready to die for their religion.
He also asked Duterte to stop military air and ground assaults and for security forces to quickly leave Marawi and Lanao del Sur, one of 5 provinces under the Muslim autonomous region.
It was unknown how many civilians and hostages were killed in military air strikes and artillery fire since the fighting began, but the military insisted over 670 militants had perished in the battle, although it provided little or no proof at all of the huge number of enemy casualties. It said nearly 150 soldiers and 47 civilians also died in the war with nearly 2000 troops wounded in the battle.
The militants occupied Marawi in an effort to put up an Islamic State province in the troubled region, home to some four million Muslims and 17 million Christians. The region of Mindanao was previously under the rule of sultans.
DEMPSEY REYES, JULMUNIR I. JANNARAL