Five civilians survive daring escape as hopes for trapped civilians’ survival grows dimmer

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Marawi City (CNN Philippines, June 13) — Independence Day was the deadline set by the military to finally free Marawi of terrorists, reminiscent of the Katipuneros who declared themselves free of Spanish rule 119 years ago.

But although Philippine flags waved high above here on June 12, reports on Tuesday from hostages lucky to have escaped the city and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) recounted a grimmer tale.

The AFP said in a statement that militants suspected to be from the Maute group or the Abu Sayyaf, knocked on the door of a three-storey building in this war-torn city, where 18 people, mostly Christian workers and their Maranao employer, had been hiding since the fighting broke out on May 23. The Maranao are one of the indigenous Muslim groups who live mainly in Lanao del Sur.

The trapped civilians made sure they did not give any signs of life — no noise, no light, coming from their building.

But the militants eventually discovered them.

Ah, ito mga Christian 'to kasi may alaga silang aso. Sabi nila, ‘Kung hindi ito mga sundalo, civilian na Christian.’ ‘Yun pinasok nila,” said Rey Saropio, one of the hostages who managed to escape. Dogs are considered unclean in Islam.

[Translation: “Ah, these are Christians because they keep a dog as a pet. They said, “If these aren’t soldiers, they are Christian civilians.’ So they entered” the building.]

WATCH: Marawi crisis enters fourth week  

As they ran out the back door, the AFP report said the terrorists shot at the civilians, killing five and taking eight as hostages.

Two of them took shelter in a water tank, staying in there for 12 hours. The others jumped into the river.

Of the 18, only five made it to safety. They were taken in by government troops.

"Yung lima, patay talaga. 'Yung pito, hindi namin alam kung buhay pa o hindi," said Saropio said of his co-workers. He added that the employer, whose name was not immediately available, was taken by the Maute when the building was stormed.

[Translation: Five are confirmed dead, The seven others, we don't know if they're dead or alive.]

This has brought the total of dead civilians to 26 since fighting started on May 23. Among the dead is a 15-year-old downed by a sniper's bullet as he was praying in a Marawi mosque on June 11.

The hostages who escaped Monday said they survived because their Maranao employer sheltered them.

Natakot yung boss namin na ilabas kami kasi Christian. Kapag nalaman kami na Christian, patay kaagad. Kaya tinago na lang kami,” said Roy Ruiz, another civilian who escaped.

[Translation: “Our boss was afraid to let us out since we were Christian. If they (Maute) knew we are Christian, we’re dead. So he hid us.”]

The 18 survived the past 21 days by sharing rations, which their employer had to break the fast with during the Ramadan period.

"'Yung tatlong sardinas, hinati namin yun sa 18. Kaming 18, lahat kakain diyan,” said Ruiz.

[Translation: “Three pieces of sardines, we divided it into 18. The 18 of us ate from that.]

In a separate incident, five policemen who were protecting five other Christians, were rescued early June 13 after being trapped in Barangay Moncado Kandigilan here.

READ: Escape from Marawi: Cops refuse to leave civilians behind

There are fears however, that the number of dead civilians could be higher.

“They don’t have any option, alternative. Either they die inside the house, or they die trying to get out,” Zia Alonto Adiong, spokesman of the Crisis Management Committee in Marawi City said Tuesday.

Apart from being hit in the crossfire, they could be taken hostage and used as human shields.

Ginagamit sila bilang utusan, tagaluto, taga-buhat ng mga bala nila,” said Lieutenant Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera, spokesman of Joint Task Force Marawi.

[Translation: “They are used as slaves, to cook, to carry their ammunition.”]

The fate of a Catholic parish priest and an undetermined number of his churchgoers who were taken as hostages on May 23 by the Maute from St. Mary’s Cathedral here is still unknown.

READ: 14 hostages escape Maute captors in Marawi

The AFP said 1,618 civilians have been rescued from Marawi since the fighting began, but around 200 to 500 are still trapped inside the war zone. More than 239,000 people have been internally displaced as clashes enter its fourth week.

The military had hoped to end the fighting two weeks from when it started, using firepower and air strikes. As the Maute dug in their heels, government aimed for a liberation date of Independence Day, June 12.  But the military says remaining Maute fighters are still holding out in three barangays in the city.

AFP spokesperson Brigadier General Restituto Padilla said in a news briefing on June 9 that there were indicators that fighting in Marawi may be over soon.

"The volume of fire coming from the enemy's side, they're not as much as before," he said. "There are areas where there was so much enemy activity was monitored, but now seems to have dwindled. Sniper fire has been very selective."

To get innocent people out of harm's way in Marawi City, a peace corridor manned by the AFP, the Philippine National Police, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is in peace talks with the government, was created on May 29.

Government forces and the Maute group observed a four-hour ceasefire on June 4 to pave the way for rescue operations. The military said 179 civilians were saved in that period.