Freed Filipino priest says airstrikes routed IS extremists

MANILA, Philippines — A Filipino Roman Catholic priest taken hostage last year by Islamic State group-linked militants recounted Friday how military airstrikes helped crush an extremist siege, but said a Muslim autonomy deal is crucial in preventing new bloodshed.

The Rev. Teresito Soganub recalled his 116-day captivity in a rare appearance at a Manila news conference, where he described how he and other hostages constantly feared for their survival amid the airstrikes and gunbattles in southern Marawi city.

The 57-year-old priest said he and other hostages were forced by their captors to collect explosive powder from firecrackers and unexploded military ordnance, which the militants used to make improvised bombs.

Gunfire and explosions repeatedly shook the ground and shattered buildings and mosques, where the militants ordered them to lie low during intense fighting, said Soganub, who couldn't recall how many near-death moments he experienced.

"Every moment, day and night, we were facing death," he said. "We didn't know if we'll still be alive in the next hour or next minute."

Troops rescued Soganub in September before crushing the Marawi siege, which left more than 1,100 combatants and civilians dead and forced hundreds of thousands of residents to abandon the mosque-studded city and outlying towns and flee to emergency shelters.

About 600 militants waving Islamic State-style black flags seized commercial buildings, mosque and houses in Marawi's central business district on May 23 after an army-led assault failed to locate a top Asian terror suspect, Isnilon Hapilon, and other militant leaders in a safe house in the lakeside city.

About 120 armed militants barged into a church compound, where Soganub said he was seized with five church workers and others. Later, in the mosques and buildings where they were hidden, Soganub counted about 120 hostages with him at one time.

During the intense urban fighting, the militants took cover in concrete buildings and houses, which they used as combat bases and sniper posts for months. But military strikes and artillery fire gradually caused that combat advantage to crumble and allowed troops to advance, Soganub said.

"The airstrikes were terrible, you could fill each crater they dug with two cars, and we could get killed if they hit our building dead center or on the sides," he said, adding that two of the kidnapped church staffers were killed in airstrikes and artillery bombardments.

Soganub said Malaysian and Indonesian gunmen were involved in the fighting but that local militants, including Hapilon, led the uprising. Hapilon, who was killed in the final battles in Marawi, visited their hideout occasionally to lead a prayer and check on the hostages, he said.

Despite the military victory in Marawi, Soganub said the government should address the decades-long neglect of Muslim communities and implement a new autonomy deal to empower minority Muslims and allow them to chart their own destiny in the largely Catholic Philippines.

"When they wage war, that can be solved by a military solution," Soganub told The Associated Press. "But the age-old problems in the south should be addressed through peaceful solutions."

The siege in Marawi has sparked fears that the Islamic State group may be gaining a foothold in Southeast Asia by influencing and providing funds to local militants as it suffers battle defeats in Syria and Iraq.

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