Troops rescue Catholic priest in battle with militants in Philippines

Smoke billows from houses after aerial bombings by Philippine Airforce planes on Islamist militant positions in Marawi. Picture: FERDINANDH CABRERA/AFP/Getty Images
Smoke billows from houses after aerial bombings by Philippine Airforce planes on Islamist militant positions in Marawi. Picture: FERDINANDH CABRERA/AFP/Getty Images
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Philippine troops have rescued a Roman Catholic priest and another civilian who were among dozens of people abducted in May when hundreds of militants aligned with the Islamic State group laid siege on southern Marawi city.

Presidential adviser Jesus Dureza said that troops retrieved the two late on Saturday after a battle to recapture a key mosque and another Islamic building used as a command centre by the gunmen in Marawi.

The government refused to comment on the reported rescue of the hostages, saying ongoing assaults may be jeopardised and troops and other hostages may be endangered if it releases details.

At least 860 people, including more than 660 militants and 147 troops and police, have been killed since the siege began in Marawi, regarded as a centre of Islamic faith in the southern third of the largely Roman Catholic nation.

The siege has sparked fears that the Islamic State group may gain a foothold in Southeast Asia by influencing and providing funds to local militants as it suffers battle defeats in Syria and Iraq. The United States and Australia have deployed surveillance aircraft to help Filipino troops battling the Marawi attackers.

An army commander, Col Romeo Brawner, said in a news conference in Marawi that troops were battling to eradicate up to 80 remaining militants who may be holding more than 40 hostages. With fewer fighters, the militants have forced some of their hostages to join the fighting and have resorted to improvised bombs and booby traps to slow the military advance, he said.

At least two militant leaders, Isnilon Hapilon and Omarkhayam Maute, were believed to still be with the gunmen in Marawi, Col Brawner said.

“It’s very important that we get their leaders so there will be no repeat of what happened in Marawi. We do not want this kind of terrorism to flourish or expand,” he said.

Father Teresito Soganub was last seen in May in a video, apparently taken under duress by the militants, when he said he was with about 200 other hostages and that his captors wanted the military to withdraw its forces from Marawi.

About 600 militants, waving Islamic State-style black flags, seized commercial buildings, mosques and houses in the city’s central business district on 23 May after an army-led assault failed to get Hapilon and other militant leaders in a safe house in the mosque-studded city. Troops battled the militants for five hours on Saturday.