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Philippine rebels free hostages from school, military says

Islamist rebels freed dozens of hostages while other captives escaped today from a school as army troops faced another security crisis in the southern Philippines

world Updated: Jun 21, 2017 20:26 IST
AP, Kidapawan
Philippine,Islamist Rebels,Hostage
Philippine soldiers patrol a road at Pigkawayan, a farming town about 160 kilometres (100 miles) from Marawi city, on north Cotabato, in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao on June 21, 2017.(AFP Photo)

Islamist rebels freed dozens of hostages while other captives escaped on Wednesday from a school as army troops faced another security crisis in the southern Philippines, military officials said.

Gunmen from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters maneuvered to attack troop and militiamen outposts but were repelled by government forces today, prompting them to seize villagers as human shields in Malagakit village in North Cotabato province, military officials said.

At least four rebels were killed and two government militiamen were wounded in the fighting, which caused nearly 1,000 villagers in Malagakit and two nearby villages to flee to safety, the officials said.

The retreating gunmen, estimated by the military and police to number from 200 to 300, later occupied a Malagakit grade school building, where they sporadically traded shots with troops up to nightfall, said local army spokesman Capt Arvin Encinas.

During a lull in the gunbattle, 31 people, including a dozen children, were either allowed to dash to freedom or escaped from the school. Six other villagers remained in rebel custody, army brigade spokesman Capt. Nap Alcarioto said.

“They’re the ones who ran and got trapped in the gunbattle and then were taken,” Alcarioto said, adding that they were being held in two classrooms.

More than 20 other residents who were trapped in their houses were taken to safety by troops, officials said.

Many of the gunmen managed to escape from the school after freeing the hostages, Encinas said.

Troops were holding their fire because of the remaining hostages. The fleeing gunmen reportedly rigged some areas of the school with homemade bombs, Alcarioto said, citing statements by some of the freed captives.

The rebels may have taken advantage of a massive military offensive against militants aligned with the Islamic State group who have laid siege to the southern city of Marawi, and plotted to attack military targets elsewhere, military spokesman Brig Gen Restituto Padilla said at a news conference.

“They were taking advantage of the situation that we have a very lightly defended outpost and that they think our forces are elsewhere in the province,” Padilla said. “But that is not the case, our forces are spread all over. We may be facing many fronts ... but we’ve properly assigned our forces.”

Rebel spokesman Abu Misry Mamah acknowledged in a radio interview that his group staged the attack, but said they only took hold of some villagers to protect them during the gunbattle.

The rebels broke off from the largest Muslim rebel group several years ago to protest peace talks with the government. Weakened by battle setbacks, some commanders have aligned themselves with the Islamic State group in the hope of securing funding from the Middle East-based group, according to the military.

Last month, about 500 militants seized Marawi, a mosque- dotted center of the Islamic faith in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation. The attack followed an army and police raid on a hideout that failed to capture a top militant suspect. Philippine troops, backed by airstrikes, have been fighting street battles to wrest back control of four areas in the city’s business district.

At least 258 militants, 65 soldiers and police and 26 civilians have been killed and more than 300,000 villagers have fled from Marawi and outlying towns.

First Published: Jun 21, 2017 20:26 IST