ISABELA, Philippines (AP) _ The 27 children and teachers spent six weeks as hostages in half-buried windowless rooms on a mountaintop before 15 were rescued in a hail of bullets.
The hostages were tortured by their Muslim rebel captors, and at least four were killed _ executed by gunshots to the back of the head. They were forced to walk barefoot on mountain trails. They often ate only one meal a day, according to accounts from freed captives Thursday.
``We were treated like pigs,″ said Renaldo Rubio, a teacher.
He and other former hostages spoke a day after Philippine troops stumbled upon the rebels and captives at a river crossing and managed to free nine children and six teachers. The rebels fled with the remaining captives.
Abu Sayyaf rebels who want an independent Muslim nation in the southern Philippines seized the teachers, students and a Roman Catholic priest from two schools on Basilan island on March 20.
Throughout the ordeal, the adult females were regularly slapped when they refused to answer their captors’ questions, surviving children said. The priest, who was one of the four killed, was beaten regularly in captivity, several rescued hostages said.
Romulo de la Cruz, the bishop of Basilan, said medical examiners told him that the nails on both of the Rev. Ruel Gallardo’s big toes had been pulled out, apparently about two weeks ago.
Gallardo and three other adults were found shot after the troops’ confrontation with the rebels Wednesday. The priest’s hands were tied together, Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado said.
Until the rebels’ sprawling stronghold on Mount Puno Mohaji was overrun by soldiers last weekend, they kept their hostages in two side-by-side box-like rooms made from wooden planks. The only opening was a trap door on the ceiling.
On the wall was a calendar with a mark on each day after March 20. The last mark was on April 21 _ the day the rebels seized all writing instruments from the hostages, Rubio said. Two weeks after the abduction, the guerrillas took all their shoes, he said.
The rebels led the hostages out of the camp Saturday as soldiers approached. Each night they walked barefoot along mountain trails, resting during the day.
Many of the children’s feet were swollen, with dark bruises. Rubio said he put leaves inside his socks to provide some cushioning.
``The trails were very slippery, and I fell many times. Each time I was kicked by the rebels. After about 30 times, I told them, ’why don’t you just kill me now?‴ Rubio said. ``They said that’s what they had done to two teachers who disappeared.″
The rebels announced two weeks ago that they beheaded two male teachers because the government had rejected their demands, prompting the military attack on their stronghold. Some of the hostages said they were never informed.
``They told us the two teachers were sent home,″ said 14-year-old Charie Vergara. ``They never said anything about beheading.″
When they were spotted Wednesday by the military less than three miles from Isabela, Basilan’s capital, the children were walking in front, followed by the adult hostages with the rebels in the rear. The guerrillas began firing directly into the backs of the adults, killing four, the survivors said.
Relatives cried Thursday at the wake for the Basilan victims at Isabela’s cathedral.
``It is a sad time for Basilan,″ said de la Cruz. ``It will take time to heal these wounds.″
Troops were pursuing the rebels Thursday in hopes of rescuing the remaining hostages, Mercado said. Several rescued hostages said the guerrillas told them they were headed to the neighboring island of Jolo.
On Jolo, other Abu Sayyaf rebels are holding a separate group of 21 hostages, including 10 foreign tourists, kidnapped April 23 from a nearby Malaysian diving resort. Mercado said those hostages were being held at five locations.
A radio station reported Thursday that two of the foreign hostages on Jolo had managed to escape.
Radio station DZMM, quoting an unidentified source at the Abu Sayyaf rebel hide-out, said two males escaped from their captors Wednesday. Rebels searching for them later clashed with soldiers, and one guerrilla commander was killed, it said.
Military officials said they had no confirmation of a hostage escape. Mercado said the military also has not confirmed a claim by rebel leaders Wednesday that two of the foreign captives died during an earlier clash with troops.
The rebels have threatened to behead two foreign hostages if the military does not withdraw its troops. Mercado said the soldiers will stay put.
``The military will never retreat,″ he said.