A priest held hostage by jihadis in Marawi has been freed by Philippine troops. His rescue comes as the Philippine military makes fresh advances against Islamist militants. Ana P. Santos reports from Manila.
Father Teresito Soganub, a Catholic priest held hostage for nearly four months by Islamist militants in the southern city of Marawi, was rescued on Saturday after a fierce gun battle between the "Islamic State"-linked militants and government troops.
Delfin Lazaro, secretary of the department of national defense (DND), told reporters at a press conference on Monday in Manila that Soganub and another hostage were rescued when government forces ousted the fighters from Bato Mosque, one of the militant group's strongholds.
"As the intensity of confrontation continued to escalate, the troops had the opportunity to snatch the priest and the other hostage," he said.
Soganub, popularly known as "Father Chito," made a brief appearance at the press conference before being taken in for medical evaluation and debriefing. Dressed in a green t-shirt and blue jacket, his face covered by a long, wiry white beard, the 51-year-old priest was in high spirits.
"I am physically strong, handsome," joked Soganub after he asked for continued prayers for his "trauma recovery."
Soganub offered no words of condemnation for his captors and said that he believed Christians and Muslims should live peacefully together.
"I still believe in an interfaith relationship, that we can be united as Muslims and Christians, that we're not enemies," Soganob told the Associated Press on board the air force plane that brought him to Manila.
Soganub was captured on the first day of fighting along with around a dozen other Christians at a cathedral when the IS-affiliated Maute terror group seized Marawi, a city on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao last May 23.
Government troops have since struggled to take back the city, navigating through unfamiliar urban terrain where the terrorists carved out underground tunnels. Four months into the battle, hundreds of thousands continue to be displaced by the fighting.
An end to the fighting soon?
The Philippine Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana confirmed that security forces continue to recover strategic ground from the rebels as the government takes back schools and mosques used as enemy strongholds, control posts and logistics bases.
The re-taking of the Bato Mosque on Saturday was a "significant gain" for government forces.
"The Maute fighters used the mosque as a machine gun nest, sniper lair, for storage of their combat supplies and as their IED (improvised explosive device) assembly point," Lorenzana told reporters, adding that he remained confident that the siege would end soon.
"We can't give you a specific timeline, but we are slowing constricting their area. We estimate that there are only 10 hectares (25 acres) left occupied by the terrorists. However, there are still some hostages there that need to be rescued. We will not unnecessarily endanger the lives of our civilians," Lorenzana said.
The government estimates that the Maute group are still holding about 35 hostages that they were still trying to rescue them alive.
Lorenzana declined to divulge other details about how Soganub was freed saying that it might jeopardize military operations and efforts to rescue the remaining hostages.
"The rescue of Soganub indicates the final stretch of the war in Marawi and the effort of the government to secure not only historical and religious landmarks, but the lives of the hostages as well," Zia Alonto Adiong, spokesperson for the Joint TaskForce Marawi, told reporters.
Free at last
According to the government, there have been more than 1,700 civilians rescued from the main battle area.
"In the days that he was in captivity, he [Soganub] was fed and not physically harmed," Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Eduardo Ano, told reporters.
However, Soganub was reportedly forced to take up arms during firefights and was at times forced to pose as a Maute fighter.
"He underwent really harsh conditions. What he needs now is rest to adjust. Please give him time to recover," said Ano.
Edwin dela Pena, a bishop in Marawi, had spoken to Soganub by phone shortly after he was freed. Dela Pena told DW that the "loose" watch of militants gave Soganub a way out. "The [government] soldiers recognized them from a distance and they were rescued," said dela Pena.
Asked to clarify if Soganub was released by enemy command or rescued by government troops, dela Pena said, "We don't care. What matters is that Father Chito is now free."