MANILA, Philippines – Government troops on Thursday rescued 13 students and villagers hours after they were abducted in the southern Philippines (search), killing at least two kidnappers in a jungle clash that also left one police officer dead, military officials said.
The freed captives, shaken and bruised after they were forced to hike at gunpoint through a mountainous rain forest near Piagapo town in Lanao del Sur (search) province, were escorted to a military camp, where they were given snacks and a place to rest, marine Brig. Gen. Ben Dolorfino said.
Troops were pursuing at least eight other kidnappers in Lanao del Sur, about 500 miles south of Manila, he said.
The captives, mostly female university students, were traveling in a jeep in nearby Saguiran town, when armed men took control of the vehicle and herded them into a hinterland area while being chased by troops and Muslim guerrillas, marine Col. Arman Melo said.
The gunmen, who were also Muslims, picked out and immediately released eight veiled Muslim women among the 22 passengers. The rest of the Christian captives were taken away aboard the jeep and forced to hike in a mountain jungle, said a freed student, Angelique Arellano.
An old man, who could no longer walk because of exhaustion and injuries, was beaten up by the kidnappers and left in a shallow ravine, where troops rescued him, she said.
"They were pointing their gun at us while ordering us to walk faster because the troops were catching up on us. They threatened to kill all of us if the troops got near," Arellano told The Associated Press by telephone from a military camp.
"I prayed and prayed. I thought I wouldn't make it. I saw some of them carrying long knives and I was afraid they would use that to chop off my head," she said.
Marines and police caught up with the kidnappers, triggering a firefight that forced the abductors to flee and leave their captives behind. "The soldiers yelled at us to drop to the ground and calm down as gunshots rang out," Arellano said.
Muslim guerrillas belonging to the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (search), which is engaged in peace talks with the government, helped pursue the kidnappers and blocked their path, Melo said.
Dolorfino said marines and police quickly traced the kidnappers' path based on objects, including pens and water bottles, that were dropped by the captives.
The freed captives told military officers that the kidnappers were young bandits, Melo said. The abductors were apparently not affiliated with any prominent crime group, and authorities initially worried that they may turn over their victims to one of the notorious criminal gangs or other guerrillas in exchange for cash, he added.
Those rescued included 11 women, some of whom were en route to take a college entrance exam at the state-run Mindanao State University (search) in Lanao del Sur, an impoverished region where kidnappings for ransom has been a concern in recent years.