Philippine security forces have rescued a senior Catholic priest held for nearly four months by Muslim militants besieging the southern city of Marawi.
Father Teresito "Chito" Soganub, vicar-general of Marawi, was found abandoned by his captors at around 11pm on Saturday near a mosque, hours after a deadly battle that saw the military seizing the militants’ control centre, the government’s chief peace negotiator Jesus Dureza said in a Facebook post yesterday.
Rear-Admiral Rene Medina, commander of the Naval Forces Western Mindanao, told The Philippine Daily Inquirer that Father Soganub escaped with another hostage, Mr Lordvin Ocopio, a teacher, during the assault.
But Colonel Edgard Arevalo, the military’s public affairs chief, said: "We are still validating that information. As of now, we still cannot give details. The rescue operation is still ongoing."
President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman Ernesto Abella declined to issue a statement "as ongoing operations may be jeopardised, as well as the lives of the remaining hostages or soldiers on the front lines".
Father Soganub was taken hostage along with about a dozen of his parishioners after hundreds of armed extremists flying the black flag of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) stormed and occupied large parts of Marawi, the Islamic capital of the mainly Catholic Philippines, on May 23.
The priest had appeared in a video released by the militants pleading for his life and asking the military to cease the aerial bombardments. Photos showing him, a young man and a woman slumped against a wall had also circulated on the Internet.
Accounts from hostages who escaped or were rescued said the militants had forced them to convert to Islam and to carry wounded fighters to mosques. They also forced the women to marry militants.
Security forces have engaged in ferocious street-to-street combat and launched air strikes in efforts to expel the fighters from Marawi, in a conflict that has raised fears that ISIS is looking to establish a South-east Asian base in the Philippines. More than 800 militants, government troops and civilians have been killed.
Col Arevalo said security forces retook at around 5pm on Saturday the Bato Mosque and Amaitul Islamiya Marawi Foundation building that was used as the militants’ control centre. "It was a fiercely fought five hours before government security forces subdued the terrorists who were strategically located in the buildings," he said.
General Eduardo Ano, the military chief, said in a statement: "This enormous (military) gain further weakened the terrorist group by denying them their erstwhile command and control hub."
"As follow-up and clearing operations continue, we expect the enemy to yield more previously occupied positions, but not without a fight," he added. "We are ready for that."
In a news briefing, Colonel Romeo Brawner, the head of Task Force Ranao, said that he expects "more firefights as we try to regain more ground".
He said security forces have yet to clear at least 200 more structures, and he believes two of the militants’ leaders, Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute, are still in Marawi.