MANILA (AFP) - Two Philippine coast guard men held hostage by Al-Qaeda-linked militants sprinted through gunfire to freedom as government forces raided the extremists' hideout, killing 15 of them, the army said on Thursday (Aug 20).
Mr Gringo Villaruz and Mr Allan Pagaling slipped separately from the Abu Sayyaf camp on Wednesday night and raced through the jungle as their captors engaged in a gun battle with an elite military force, said Captain Antonio Bulao, the unit's spokesman.
The men, who were abducted in May along with another hostage who was later beheaded, sought refuge at a village about 1.5km away, Mr Bulao added.
They did not know of each other's escape until they saw each other on Thursday at a local military hospital, where they were treated for bruises, the spokesman said.
The army this week launched a risky attempt to rescue 11 hostages - including Mr Villaruz and Mr Pagaling as well as two Malaysians, a Dutchman and a South Korean - after the militants beheaded a 12th captive last week.
"The heavy fighting gave the two men the chance to escape because the Abu Sayyaf was focused on engaging our troops," Mr Bulao said of the dramatic events on the militants' stronghold on the remote southern island of Jolo.
The military said 15 Abu Sayyaf gunmen were killed, but the remains of only five were recovered, while several soldiers sustained minor injuries.
Four other hostages, including two businessmen from Malaysia and South Korea, held at the same location in the jungle near Indanan town on Jolo island have still not been accounted for, army spokesman Captain Antonio Bulao said.
He said security forces had killed 15 members of the Abu Sayyaf group late on Wednesday during the rescue operation.
The two coast guardsmen took advantage of the confusion during the firefight and escaped. "They are here with us and having a meal right now," Capt Bulao told reporters by phone from an army base on Jolo.
"They are in high spirits but tired after hiding all night before they were found today.
"We have no word if the other four captives were able to run away from the rebels," he said, adding the offensive on Jolo to free all hostages, including another Malaysian, a Dutch national and a Japanese national, would continue. "The order from headquarters was to rescue all of them."
"The operations will continue. There will be no let-up because we are gaining ground," Capt Bulao said.
The kidnappers were believed to be led by Yasser Igasan, one of the group's most senior leaders and who was believed to be among those who escaped after the firefight, Mr Bulao added.
The two coast guard men were abducted in the southern port city of Dapitan some 250km from Jolo in May along with a village official, Mr Rodolfo Boligao.
The three men were later shown shirtless and blindfolded in videos that made the rounds of social media, with a masked person behind them menacingly holding a machete to their necks.
Mr Boligao's decapitated remains were found on a dark Jolo highway last week after the government rejected the Abu Sayyaf's unspecified ransom demand.
Separate fighting in neighbouring Basilan island on Wednesday left five Abu Sayyaf members and one soldier killed, the military said.
Impoverished Jolo and Basilan are known strongholds of the Abu Sayyaf, a loose band of several hundred armed men set up in the 1990s with seed money from the Al-Qaeda network of Osama Bin Laden.
The group engages in kidnappings to finance operations, often targeting foreigners and sometimes beheading captives if ransom is 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.