Hostages race to freedom as Philippine troops battle militants

MANILA - Two Philippine coast guard men held hostage by Al-Qaeda-linked militants sprinted through gunfire to freedom as government forces raided the extremists' hideout, killing 15 of them, the army said Thursday.

Gringo Villaruz and Allan Pagaling slipped separately from the Abu Sayyaf camp on Wednesday night and raced through the jungle as their captors engaged in a gun battle with an elite military force, said Captain Antonio Bulao, the unit's spokesman.

The men, who were abducted in May along with another hostage who was later beheaded, sought refuge at a village about 1.5 kilometres (nearly a mile) away, Bulao added.

They did not know of each other's escape until they saw each other Thursday at a local military hospital, where they were treated for bruises, the spokesman said.

The army this week launched a risky attempt to rescue 11 hostages - including Villaruz and Pagaling as well as two Malaysians, a Dutchman and a South Korean - after the militants beheaded a 12th captive last week.

"The heavy fighting gave them (the two men) the chance to escape because the Abu Sayyaf was focused on engaging our troops," Bulao said of the dramatic events on the militants' stronghold on the remote southern island of Jolo.

The military said 15 Abu Sayyaf gunmen were killed, but the remains of only five were recovered, while several soldiers sustained minor injuries.

The fate and whereabouts of the remaining nine hostages were unknown, Bulao told AFP.

"The operations will continue. There will be no let-up because we are gaining ground," Bulao said.

The kidnappers were believed led by Yasser Igasan, one of the group's most senior leaders and who was believed to be among those who escaped after the firefight, Bulao added.

The two coast guard men were abducted in the southern port city of Dapitan some 250 kilometres from Jolo in May along with a village official, Rodolfo Boligao.

The three men were later shown shirtless and blindfolded in videos that made the rounds of social media, with a masked person behind them menacingly holding a machete to their necks.

Boligao's decapitated remains were found on a dark Jolo highway last week after the government rejected the Abu Sayyaf's unspecified ransom demand.

Separate fighting in neighbouring Basilan island on Wednesday left five Abu Sayyaf members and one soldier killed, the military said.

Impoverished Jolo and Basilan are known strongholds of the Abu Sayyaf, a loose band of several hundred armed men set up in the 1990s with seed money from the Al-Qaeda network of Osama Bin Laden.

The group engages in kidnappings to finance operations, often targeting foreigners and sometimes beheading captives if ransom is not paid.

It has also been blamed for the worst bomb attacks in the country, including the firebombing of a ferry off Manila Bay in 2004 that killed more than 100 people.

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