ILIGAN, Philippines — A Roman Catholic priest who was held hostage for months by Islamic State-inspired militants in the war-torn southern city of Marawi has been freed, the Philippine military said Sunday, as it moved closer to rooting out the remaining gunmen from their strongholds.
The Rev. Teresito Suganob was rescued late Saturday by troops who cleared a mosque that militants had been using as a defensive post, authorities said.
“He was rescued by our men on the ground,” said Jesus Dureza, a senior presidential adviser.
The commander of naval forces in the southern region, Rear Admiral Rene Medina, gave a somewhat different account, saying that the priest, and another hostage, had managed to escape amid the heavy fighting. They were picked up by the military and brought to a safer place, Medina said.
No information was immediately available about Suganob’s condition or that of the other hostage, a teacher.
Suganob was among dozens of civilians taken hostage on May 23 as gunmen from militant groups affiliated with the Islamic State began a citywide assault on Marawi, the Philippines’ only predominantly Muslim city. The military soon began a counteroffensive; since then, the militants’ numbers have been greatly reduced, much of Marawi has been reduced to ruins, and hundreds of thousands of people have fled to refugee camps.
In June, Suganob appeared in a video posted online by the militants, and he pleaded for President Rodrigo Duterte to stop the military’s air raids as bursts of gunfire rang in the background.
“Mr. President, we are in the midst of this war,” said the priest, who added that the bombing was putting the hostages at risk. “We want to live another year, two years,” he said.
At one point, the Philippine military said the militants could be holding as many as 200 hostages, and it was unclear Sunday how many were still captives. But the news of Suganob’s freedom suggested that the militants could be fleeing the battlefront to escape a punishing ground and air assault assisted by the United States and Australia, which have been flying spy planes over the scarred city.
Two weeks ago, troops recaptured Marawi’s Grand Mosque, where Philippine militants had been holed up with hostages, backed by several fighters from the Middle East and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. On Friday, after a five-hour battle, the military seized two other structures, including another mosque, that it said had been enemy strongholds.
Suganob had been a captive in yet another mosque, Bato Mosque, which the military took control of on Saturday.
“As follow-up and clearing operations continue, we expect the enemy to yield more previously occupied positions, but not without a fight,” said the head of the armed forces, General Eduardo Año. “We are ready for that.”
He said the rebels had been denied “their erstwhile command and control hub,” referring to Bato Mosque, and he called the freeing of Suganob “an enormous gain.”
As of Saturday, the death toll from the fighting since May stood at 668 militants and 149 soldiers, according to the military. It said 47 civilians had been killed.
The military estimates that 40 to 60 rebels are still fighting. There has been no word of the fate of Isnilon Hapilon, the declared leader of the Islamic State in the Philippines, or of the brothers Omarkhayam and Abdullah Maute, leaders of an allied militant group.
The Marawi crisis has been the biggest security threat Duterte has faced since he became president last year. He has admitted that the military was caught off-guard by the militants’ brazen attack, which occurred as he was traveling in Russia with top officials, including military and police generals. Duterte has since placed the entire southern third of the country under martial law as the security forces pursue the militants and their supporters.
On Saturday, navy commandos patrolled the city’s lakeshore area armed with high-caliber weapons and night-vision goggles, while P-3 Orion spy planes and drones provided by the United States tracked movements on the ground.
Ground troops, meanwhile, moved through streets littered with debris. Upturned vehicles and rows of heavily pockmarked homes lined the streets, where militants had dug in. The Philippine Air Force carried out bombing runs that sent up plumes of black smoke and rattled windows a half mile away.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the fighting was nearing an end, although he declined to offer a specific time frame. The military has announced three different dates by which it said the fighting would be over, but it has continued nonetheless.
“There’s only a little resistance left,” Lorenzana said.
New York Times