Abducted priest seen alive as Islamists hold out in Philippines

Smoke billows after bombing by Philippine air force planes of Islamist militants in Marawi (AFP Photo/Ted ALJIBE) (AFP)

A Roman Catholic priest abducted by Islamist militants who seized parts of a southern Philippine city has been seen alive, the military said Monday as troops pressed on with their offensive.

Air and artillery bombardment of enclaves occupied by the militants in the largely Muslim city of Marawi resumed after an eight-hour truce Sunday to let residents celebrate the end of the Ramadan fasting month.

Fires erupted and plumes of dark and white smoke billowed against a blue sky as the bombs slammed into their targets, AFP journalists in Marawi said.

But military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jo-ar Herrera said the militants were also deliberately burning houses, as well as using improvised bombs, booby traps and hostages as human shields to delay the troops' advance, five weeks into the fighting.

Hundreds of gunmen flying the black flag of the Islamic State (IS) group occupied parts of Marawi on May 23, triggering bloody street and house-to-house fighting that has claimed nearly 400 lives according to an official count.

- Priest seen alive -

Father Teresito "Chito" Suganob, a Catholic priest assigned to Marawi, wsas taken hostage along with some parishioners early in the seige of the largely Catholic Philippines' most important Muslim city.

Herrera, spokesman for the military forces in Marawi, said the priest had been seen alive on Sunday in a part of the city still in the hands of the extremists.

"We don't have details of his health. We were just told that he was sighted alive," he told reporters, citing accounts from civilians rescued from the battle zone.

He also said about 100 civilians were still in the hands of the gunmen and being used as "human shields", ammunition carriers and stretcher-bearers.

Dickson Hermoso, a senior official at a government office in charge of peace talks with various rebel groups, said emissaries comprised of local Muslim religious teachers met a key leader of the militants in Marawi during the truce on Sunday.

While their main aim was to negotiate the release of hostages, the eight religious teachers who entered the battle zone also asked if the jihadists wanted to surrender, Hermoso told CNN Philippines.

"But they had a heated argument, there was disagreement," he said. "There were adverse reactions (from the militants)."

The emissaries managed to negotiate the release of five civilians.

Most of Marawi's 200,000 residents have fled the lakeside city, once a favourite summer vacation destination in the south due to its cool climate but now a ghost town.

Fighting resumed with renewed fury on Monday, with government fighter jets and other aircraft carrying out bombing attacks amid sustained bursts of gunfire.

"Our offensive operations have resumed and will continue so we can liberate Marawi at the soonest time possible," Herrera added.

- Foreign bomb experts -

He said the bodies of two militants believed to be from the Middle East because of their physical features were found at the scene of an earlier airstrike, another sign that foreign fighters had joined the battle.

"These foreign terrorists involved in the hostilities are bomb experts. They are the ones facilitating the rigging of the buildings and houses with bombs," Herrera said.

Eight foreign fighters, including those from Chechnya, Indonesia and Malaysia, were killed in the early days of the battle, the government has said.

In May Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in Marawi and the southern region of Mindanao to quell what he described as a rebellion aimed at establishing an Islamic State caliphate in the area.

Herrera said they were still trying to confirm reports that Isnilon Hapilon, who is on America's list of most wanted terrorists with a $5 million bounty, had escaped Marawi despite a military and police cordon.

An attempt by troops to arrest Hapilon in Marawi on May 23 triggered the rampage by the militants. Hapilon is said to be the leader of the IS in Southeast Asia.

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