Abducted priest seen alive as militants hold out in Philippines

Black smoke billowing from burning houses after Philippine Airforce attack planes conducted aerial bombings on Islamist militants' positions in Marawi on June 26, 2017.
Black smoke billowing from burning houses after Philippine Airforce attack planes conducted aerial bombings on Islamist militants' positions in Marawi on June 26, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

MARAWI (AFP) - A Roman Catholic priest abducted by Islamist militants who seized parts of a southern Philippine city has been seen alive, the military said Monday (June 26), as troops pressed on with their offensive.

Air and artillery bombardment of enclaves occupied by the militants in the largely Muslim city of Marawi resumed after an eight-hour truce Sunday to allow residents to celebrate the end of the Ramadan fasting month.

Fires erupted and plumes of dark and white smoke billowed against a blue sky as the bombs slammed into their targets, AFP journalists in Marawi said.

But military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera said the militants were also deliberately burning houses and using improvised bombs, booby traps and hostages as human shields to delay the troops' advance, five weeks into the fighting.

Hundreds of gunmen flying the black flag of the Islamic State (ISIS) group occupied parts of Marawi on May 23, triggering bloody fighting that has claimed nearly 400 lives according to an official count.

Priest seen alive

Father Teresito "Chito" Suganob, a Catholic priest assigned to Marawi, was taken hostage along with some parishioners early in the siege on the largely Catholic Philippines' most important Muslim city.

Herrera, spokesman for the military forces in Marawi, said the priest had been seen alive on Sunday in a part of the city still in the hands of the extremists.

"We don't have details of his health. We were just told that he was sighted alive," he told reporters in Marawi, citing accounts from civilians rescued from the battle zone.

He also said there were about 100 civilian hostages still in the hands of the gunmen, being used as "human shields", ammunition carriers and stretcher-bearers.

Most of Marawi's 200,000 residents have fled the fighting and the lakeside city, a favourite summer vacation destination in the south due to its cool climate, is now a ghost town.

Fighting resumed with renewed fury on Monday, with government fighter jets and other aircraft seen carrying out bombing attacks while sustained bursts of gunfire could be heard.

"Our offensive operations have resumed and will continue so we can liberate Marawi at the soonest time possible," Herrera added.

Foreign bomb experts

He said the bodies of two militants believed to be from the Middle East because of their physical features were found at the scene of an earlier airstrike, another sign that foreign fighters had joined the battle.

"These foreign terrorists involved in the hostilities are bomb experts. They are the ones facilitating the rigging of the buildings and houses with bombs," Herrera said.

Eight foreign fighters, including those from Chechnya, Indonesia and Malaysia, were killed in the early days of the battle, the government has said.

In May Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in Marawi and the southern region of Mindanao to quell what he described as a rebellion aimed at establishing an Islamic State caliphate in the area.

Herrera said they were still trying to confirm reports that Isnilon Hapilon, a veteran Filipino militant said to be the leader of the Islamic State group in Southeast Asia, had escaped Marawi despite a military and police cordon.

An attempt by troops to arrest Hapilon in Marawi on May 23 triggered the rampage by the militants.

Hapilon was indicted in Washington for his involvement in the 2001 kidnapping of three Americans in the Philippines. He has a US$5 million (S$6.94 million) bounty on his head from the US government and is on its "most wanted" terror list.

The army has said it was checking reports that Omarkhayam Maute and Malaysian militant Mahmud Ahmad, both leaders of the Marawi offensive, had been killed in the fighting.

Colonel Edgard Arevalo, a Manila-based military spokesman, said two other militants leaders - Maute's brothers Abdullah and Madi - are still alive.

The pair met with peace emissaries during the truce on Sunday to discuss the release of hostages, he added.

The Maute brothers are leaders of the Maute Group, which joined forces with Hapilon's Abu Sayyaf faction to carry out the Marawi attack. Both groups have pledged allegiance to ISIS.