MANILA (AFP) - Two Philippine coast guard men on Friday trembled and cried as they recalled their harrowing four-month captivity under Islamic extremists who beheaded one of their fellow hostages.
Sporting long beards, Mr Gringo Villaruz and Mr Rod Allain Pagaling said luck and quick wit aided their escape from Abu Sayyaf militants on the remote southern island of Jolo.
"Each day I felt like I was going to die," Mr Pagaling told reporters shortly after arriving in Manila, as his three-year-old daughter Allaina clung tightly to his shoulders.
"It was very difficult. We had nothing else to turn to except prayer."
The men, who were abducted in May along with another hostage, were blindfolded, stripped of their shirts and made to beg for their lives on their knees as their masked captors held machetes to their necks.
A video of the desperate plea was posted on the video-sharing website YouTube as the bandits demanded an undisclosed ransom.
The decapitated remains of the other hostage, Mr Rodolfo Boligao, were found on a dark, deserted Jolo highway last week.
The beheading prompted elite military forces to launch a risky operation to free 11 hostages held by the Al-Qaeda-linked militants - including the two coast guard officials, as well as two Malaysians, a Dutch national and a South Korean.
After the military engaged the militants in a firefight late on Wednesday, Mr Villaruz and Mr Pagaling were able to slip away.
"The fighting was so intense. There was no time to think hard," said Mr Villaruz.
"We just made a run for it while there was chaos all around."
Found an hour apart, they did not know of each other's escape until they saw one another on Thursday at a local military hospital.
The Abu Sayyaf militants are believed to be holding nine remaining hostages. The authorities are continuing to pursue the group, said Captain Antonio Bulao, a military spokesman in Jolo.
Fifteen Abu Sayyaf militants died in the fighting on Wednesday.
Impoverished Jolo is a known stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf, a loose band of several hundred armed men set up in the 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network.
The group engages in kidnappings to finance its operations, often targeting foreigners and sometimes beheading captives if ransoms are not paid.
It has also been blamed for the worst bomb attacks in the country, including the firebombing of a ferry off Manila Bay in 2004 that killed more than 100 people.