Abducted priest to Duterte: Save us
ILIGAN CITY – A Catholic priest held captive together with more than 200 civilians by terrorists linked to the Islamic State (IS) group has appealed to President Duterte to consider their plight and stop the military operation against their captors.
Fr. Teresito “Chito” Suganob, vicar general of Marawi City, and some of the other hostages were seized in a cathedral as gunmen from the Maute terror group laid siege to the capital of Lanao del Sur province on May 23.
“We are asking your help to please give what your enemies are asking for,” Suganob said in a video clip shown on Tuesday on a Telegram channel used by IS.
“If you have the good heart for us, considering Mr. President the about 240 prisoners of war. We are asking your good heart, please consider. We still want to live for another day, we want to live another month, we want to live three years—more. Please consider us, Mr. President,” he said.
Suganob said he was being held together with a female professor from Mindanao State University, two female church workers, two male and five female teachers from Dansalan Foundation College and “about 200 carpenters, domestic workers, children and youth, ordinary Christian settlers and other Subanen tribes.”
Bishop Edwin de la Peña of Marawi City, who saw the video on Tuesday, confirmed that the priest in the video was Suganob.
De la Peña said he was “more worried now because they (the terrorists) are using” Suganob.
“They seem to be cornered so they use Father Chito,” De la Peña told the Inquirer by phone.
“This is the most critical part of Father Chito’s captivity, this is the most difficult time for all the captives,” he said.
De la Peña said it was clear that Suganob was “coached” on what to say in the video.
“It was done under duress,” he said.
Asked if he had informed the authorities about the video, De la Peña said: “I think they know it already. It’s already on the internet.”
Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla, spokesperson for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said the military was aware of the video.
“This is pure propaganda. The Maute group is using this to stop our clearing operations,” Padilla said.
He said he was confident the terrorists would not harm the priest because they wanted to use him to gain concessions.
Later, however, Padilla said the military was verifying the authenticity of the video.
In the video footage, Suganob was standing on a deserted street with ruins around him and the sound of gunfire in the background.
“They simply are not asking for anything, just to withdraw your forces … and to stop the airstrikes, and attacks, and to stop the carnage,” the priest said.
Suganob, wearing a black shirt and trousers, said the terrorists had the right to practice their faith and enforce Islamic laws in the city.
“After all, this is their place,” he said. “I hope you understand them. I’m saying this because you also live here. Do not use force and violence because your enemies are ready to die for their religion.”
Bishop De la Peña said the matter was now in Mr. Duterte’s hands.
“[Just] to buy time, not necessarily to give in to the demand, if possible, [stop the airstrikes]. The terrorists are trying to relocate,” he said.
De la Peña suggested that the government look for other ways to deal with the terrorists that would not endanger the lives of the hostages.
“I hope President Duterte will have listening ears and a soft heart for Father Chito and his group,” he said.
But Malacañang and the military urged the Maute gunmen to turn themselves in on Tuesday, the eighth day of a push by security forces using armored vehicles and firing rockets from helicopter gunships to eliminate the terrorists.
The military said on Monday that it was close to retaking Marawi from the Maute terrorists, who seized parts of the city on May 23 after a failed attempt by security forces to capture Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the Abu Sayyaf bandit group for whose capture the US government has offered $5 million.
The attack on Marawi prompted President Duterte to declare martial law for 60 days in all of Mindanao and suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus on the island during the period of military rule.
More than 100 people have been killed since May 23, including 19 civilians, 20 soldiers, three police and 65 terrorists.
More than 71,000 residents have fled the city, mostly to Iligan City, an hour’s ride from Marawi.
Social Welfare Secretary Judy Taguiwalo flew to Iligan City on Tuesday to supervise the evacuation. She also pleaded for medical assistance for the evacuees.
The President met with leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Davao City for a discussion of how the group, which is working out a peace agreement with the government, could help in providing humanitarian assistance to evacuees from Marawi City.
Eight terrorists surrendered to the military in a part of Marawi called Mapandi on Sunday, Marine Brig. Gen. Custodio Parcon said on Tuesday.
He said there were fewer than 50 gunmen holed up in Mapandi, which is being cleared by the Marines.
“In our area, [the resistance of the Maute gunmen] is sporadic. It is not commensurate to the combat power I’m giving them,” Parcon said.
“They run. We hit them hard and they run again. [They] do not clash with [us] frontally,” he added.
Parcon said Maute terrorists were also holed up in the city’s commercial center.
Sincere offer of dialogue
“We call on the remaining terrorists to surrender while there is an opportunity,” presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella said in a press briefing in Malacañang.
He said Mr. Duterte was sincere when the President said that he and the terrorists could resolve their differences through “dialogue.”
Mr. Duterte is “very, very open” to talking with them, Abella said.
The Maute terrorists could use back channels for the talks, he added.
Padilla also urged the terrorists to surrender, as helicopter gunships circled over Marawi, smoke billowed out of some buildings and troops cleared terrorist positions amid explosions and automatic gunfire, moving house to house and street by street.
A politician involved in efforts to evacuate residents, Zia Alonto Adiong, said authorities had cleared 85 percent of the city—Gen. Eduardo Año, the military chief of staff, said 70 percent—but claiming the rest would be a challenge because they were dense urban areas with trapped civilians. —WITH REPORTS FROM LEILA B. SALAVERRIA, DONA Z. PAZZIBUGAN, PHILIP C. TUBEZA AND JULIE M. AURELIO IN MANILA; THE WIRES
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