Priest says he and 200 others held hostage in Philippines
MARAWI, Philippines (AP) — A Catholic priest who was taken hostage by militants linked to the Islamic State group says he’s being held alongside 200 other captives, including children, in what appeared to be a battle-scarred part of a southern Philippine city.
In a video apparently taken under duress by militants, Father Teresito Suganob said his captors wanted the military to withdraw its forces from Marawi, where Islamic militants still hold pockets of territory after a week of gunbattles with the army.
A colleague of Suganob confirmed to The Associated Press that the man in the video is the priest. It was not clear when the video was taken or who released it online, and whether Suganob believed what he was saying or was forced to say it.
“We want to live another day, we want to live another month,” Suganob said, standing in front of debris and partially burned buildings. Directing his remarks to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, he said, “We want to live few years and in your generosity, Mr. President, in your heart, we know you can make something (happen).”
Marawi Bishop Edwin de la Pena confirmed that it was Suganob in the video.
“I was glad to see that he is alive but we were also saddened because the fact that the terrorists are ready to negotiate means they are pressed against the wall and they are also desirous to get away from the situation and their bargaining chip are the hostages,” he said in a telephone interview.
“It was taken in Marawi and it was him, and the emotions that came out I think were really authentic,” he said, adding that Suganob looked truly afraid when an explosion was heard in the background. De la Pena said he could not tell where in Marawi the video was made.
He said Suganob’s mention of people with him made it appear that they are also alive.
“It gives us a lot of hope that these people are worth saving, because they are still alive,” he said. “If the air strikes continue, they will really be in danger.”
Suganob said in the video that he was taken prisoner along with a professor from Mindanao State University, two female church workers and seven teachers.
“Along with us are about 200 carpenters, household helpers, children and youth, and ordinary Christian settlers,” he said. The presence of that number of hostages could not be independently confirmed.
The siege in Marawi followed an unsuccessful army raid last Tuesday that attempted to capture militant commander Isnilon Hapilon, who has been designated by the Islamic State group as its leader in the Philippines.
Marawi, a mosque-studded city about 800 kilometers (500 miles) southeast of Manila, is regarded as the heartland of the Islamic faith on southern Mindanao island.
Hapilon escaped and gunmen loyal to him swept through the city of 200,000 people, torching buildings and taking hostages.
Soldiers have now taken control of about 70 percent of Marawi, military chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Ano told the AP on Tuesday. More than 100 militants, government forces and civilians have been killed.
Up to 90 percent of Marawi’s people have fled to safety amid the intense fighting and military airstrikes, and rescuers in ambulance vans have crisscrossed the city in recent days to save hundreds of trapped residents.
Some communities resemble ghost towns. Neatly stacked bananas, avocados and vegetables in an abandoned market were beginning to rot and were being eaten by a cat and a chicken. Helicopters frequently buzzed overhead and sporadic gunfire and blasts shattered the eerie silence.
Ano said the militants include foreign fighters and local gunmen who want to establish a regional branch of the Islamic State group.
“They wanted to show the world that there is an ISIS branch here which can inflict the kind of violence that has been seen in Syria and Iraq,” Ano said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.
Ano said the gunmen were prepared to fight because they had been planning to unleash attacks during the holy month of Ramadan to capture the attention of the IS group.
The unrest has boosted fears that the violent ideology of the IS is gaining a foothold in the restive southern Philippines, where a Muslim separatist rebellion has raged for decades.
President Duterte declared martial law in the south through mid-July, but lawmakers on Tuesday asked for a public session of Congress to determine whether it is still necessary.
Duterte’s declaration unnerved Filipinos who lived through the rule of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who imposed martial law in 1972 and used it to hold power for more than a decade.
The army insists the drawn-out fight in Marawi is not a true sign of the militants’ strength because the military has held back to spare civilian lives. About 40-50 gunmen were still holed up in two buildings in Marawi’s business district, Ano said.
Still, the fighters have turned out to be remarkably well-armed and resilient. Experts have warned that as IS is weakened in Syria and Iraq, battered by years of American-led attacks, Mindanao could become a focal point for regional fighters.
Three Malaysians, an Indonesian and possibly Arab extremists have been killed in the Marawi fighting, Ano said. He said Hapilon was still hiding somewhere in the city and that authorities were working to confirm whether another top militant, Omarkhayam Maute, had been killed.
At least 65 militants and 20 Philippine troops and police have been killed, the military said. The bodies of 19 civilians have been recovered and local authorities have reported more civilian deaths still to be tallied.
The fighters’ support network in Marawi remains unclear, though the power of one militant group — the Mautes — has grown in recent years. Led by members of the city’s Maute clan, the group has become increasingly active across Lanao del Sur province, where Marawi is located, and has been instrumental in the fighting this past week.
Associated Press writer Teresa Cerojano in Manila contributed to this report.