The Islamic State has released a hostage video from the southern Philippines in which kidnapped Catholic priest Father Teresito “Chito” Suganob pleads with President Rodrigo Duterte to withdraw troops from the area, suggesting the lives of some 200 hostages are at stake, including children.
Suganob was kidnapped along with a dozen employees and parishioners of the Cathedral of St. Mary in Marawi City when militants from the ISIS-linked Maute terrorist group invaded the town on May 23.
Relatives of Father Suganob confirmed his identity after watching the video, as did the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.
“I pray for the safety of all the hostages. I appeal to the consciences of the hostage takers not to harm the innocent as the Islamic faith teaches. I appeal to religious leaders of Islam to influence the hostage takers to release the hostages unharmed,” said Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Cardinal Quevedo in a radio interview.
“We are happy to see him alive because we have not received any information about him,” said Suganob’s uncle Rufino Larroza, a local civic leader.
Larroza, who is a military veteran, said that President Duterte should not give in to the terrorists’ demands. “This would be giving in to the Maute and our soldiers could be endangered,” he explained. He went on to express hope that the government could negotiate the safe release of his nephew and the other hostages.
The video, which was circulated on social media, depicts Father Suganob speaking in front of buildings damaged in the battle between ISIS militants and government troops. Gunfire can be heard in the background. Analysts are not certain exactly when the footage was recorded.
“Mr. President, we are in the midst of this war. We are asking for your help to please give what they are asking for. To withdraw forces away from Lanao del Sur and Marawi City, and to stop the air attacks, and to stop the cannons,” Suganob says to President Duterte in the video.
“They do not ask for anything, Mr. President. For all we know this is their place. They are ready to die for their religion,” he says of his captors, speaking of course under duress.
On behalf of the hostages, Suganob adds, “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.”
Suganob described the hostages as some two hundred “carpenters, household helpers, children and youth, and ordinary Christian settlers.” The exact number of prisoners taken in the Marawi attack has not been confirmed by the authorities.
The New York Times quotes Philippine military spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla assessing the video as “propaganda” created in desperation because the Maute militants are “fighting for survival, they’re trapped.”
The military reported seizing a large cache of rebel weapons on Tuesday, including a heavy machine gun, pistols, rocket-propelled grenades, and two black ISIS flags. The seizure was described as a “game changer.”
However, the Islamic State still controls somewhere between twenty and thirty percent of Marawi City, according to various reports. Their numbers have been bolstered by fighters from smaller extremists groups looking make an impression on the “caliphate.” In fact, the Chicago Tribune notes that some of those groups were already “planning to unleash attacks during the holy month of Ramadan to capture the attention” of the Islamic State.
Also quoted by the NYT was Marawi Bishop Edwin de la Pena, who said he was glad to see Suganob alive, but also “saddened because the fact that the terrorists are ready to negotiate means they are pressed against the wall and they are also desirous to get away from the situation and their bargaining chip are the hostages.”
“It gives us a lot of hope that these people are worth saving, because they are still alive. If the air strikes continue, they will really be in danger,” he said of the video.
The Philippine military has already called in airstrikes against ISIS positions around Marawi. Military spokesmen offered assurances that great care has been taken to minimize civilian casualties, which is said to be one reason why Maute and its allies still control so much of the city. However, at least a hundred civilians have reportedly been killed in the fighting.