Updated: September 21, 2017 03:50 AM GMT
Freed Marawi Vicar-General Father Teresito Soganub in a celebratory mood on an airplane with military and civilian officials from Marawi. (Photos courtesy of Zia Alonto Adiong)
A senior Philippine priest taken hostage by IS-inspired militants in the conflict torn southern city of Marawi has been freed after almost four months of captivity.
President Rodrigo Duterte's peace adviser Jesus Dureza broke the news on Sept. 17 that Marawi Prelature Vicar-General Father Teresito Soganub was free on his Facebook account.
Military officials initially refused to confirm the news but on Sept. 18 announced that the priest was "rescued," along with another hostage.
Lanao del Sur Provincial Crisis Management Committee spokesman, Zia Alonto Adiong, earlier released photos of the priest on a plane alongside military officers.
The military said the delay in announcing that Father Soganub was free was due to ongoing rescue operations to secure other hostages in a small pocket in Manawi, a once thriving commercial and religious center reduced to rubble by four months of fighting.
"I am happy receiving messages about Father Chito's rescue no matter how hazy they are," Bishop Edwin dela Pena of Marawi told the news website arm of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines.
Marilyn Soganub-Ginnivan, younger sister of Father Soganub, said the family was overjoyed to learn that the priest was free and safe.
She said the priest had yet to get in touch with the family since he was reportedly rescued late on Sept. 16.
"We are still waiting for his call," she told ucanews.com.
The Soganub family, from the town of Norala in South Cotabato, will hold a homecoming party for the priest, Soganub-Ginnivan said.
"We have been praying for his freedom and for the other captives since they were abducted. God answered out prayers," she said.
"The power of prayer is once again shown as a witness of our solid faith in God." Archbishop Martin Jumoad of Ozamiz said in an article posted on the bishops' conference website.
Speaking later at a press conference in Manila, the freed priest said he was as well as could be expected following his ordeal.
"I am physically strong and sound," Father Suganob said at Camp Aguinaldo, the national military headquarters.
Father Suganob asked Filipinos to pray for other remaining hostages before military doctors whisked him off for a medical check up.
The IS-linked group captured Father Soganub and the church workers at Marawi Cathedral on May 23, the first day of fighting in the Islamic city.
As well as taking around 30 people from the cathedral offices, they also tore down and desecrated icons and other sacred images and tried to set fire to the building.
Father Soganub appeared in a video a week after his capture, appealing to Duterte to withdraw troops and cease airstrikes against rebels.
He also said that the militants had more than 200 hostages. The military last month said the number of hostages was down to around 40.
Military chief Gen. Eduardo Ano said troops "will press on relentlessly until the conclusion" of the fighting.
He said there were 12 other hostages remaining with Omar Maute, the only surviving senior member of a local clan allied with the IS-linked militants.
"The rest of the Mautes are dead," Ano said.
The general said Father Suganob told him the hostages were fed well and not harmed, but could not vouch for treatment of other captives not in their group.
He added that when fighting broke out, the militants forced some hostages to stand as armed guards dressed in black robes to discourage them from escaping for fear of being shot by troops.
Military officials also on Sept. 18 said nearly 900 have died in the four-month conflict. For the last month, the military has said they are fighting up to 50 die hard militants in a 500-sq-meter area.