Militants flee from school south of Marawi
Gun battle at Pigcawayan town between Philippine troops and militants ends with 31 hostages left unharmed
MANILA The Philippine military said Islamist militants fled from a primary school in the south yesterday, leaving behind 31 hostages unharmed, including 12 children, after a day-long gun battle with troops.
There was no word of casualties in the incident at Pigcawayan town, which is 190km south of Marawi city, where fighting between government troops and pro-Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants has entered its fifth week.
"The enemy made a hasty withdrawal, leaving behind 31 hostages, among them 12 youngsters," Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla said.
He said another 20 civilians who were trapped in the area because of the crossfire were also rescued.
Police said about 300 armed men from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) stormed the school early yesterday, Reuters reported.
The general, however, said later only about 50 militants were involved. Military officials were initially not certain if any hostages were taken and whether they included children.
Community leaders were called in to help in negotiations to rescue the hostages, Brig-Gen Padilla said: "It's over... but we're also on guard because they might carry out other attacks."
Mr Abu Misry Mama, a spokesman for the BIFF, told Reuters that the militants had taken the civilians to a safe place, away from any crossfire, and did not intend to hold them hostage.
Asked earlier if they would be freed, Mr Mama said: "Yes. We're not kidnappers."
Both Pigcawayan and Marawi are on the large southern island of Mindanao.
Some members of the BIFF have joined fighters from two more powerful Islamist factions, the Maute group and Abu Sayyaf, who occupied the town of Marawi a month ago and have been battling government forces there since.
But Brig-Gen Padilla said the incident at Pigcawayan was not related to the Marawi fighting.
"This has come from a group that has long committed harassments," he said.
The seizure of Marawi and the dogged resistance by the rebels there who have pledged allegiance to ISIS has alarmed South-east Asian countries.
Governments fear ISIS, on the back foot in Iraq and Syria, is trying to set up a stronghold in the Muslim south of the Philippines that could threaten the whole region.
Brig-Gen Padilla said there had also been skirmishes throughout the day outside of Pigcawayan, which is surrounded by marshlands, mountains and farmlands, AFP reported.
Those areas are largely lawless areas with mixed Muslim-Christian communities where the BIFF, other Muslim rebels and political warlords hold sway.