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2 Filipino coast guard men threatened with beheading escape from extremists amid army assault

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MANILA, Philippines — Two Philippine coast guard personnel who were threatened with beheading escaped from their Abu Sayyaf extremist captors when hundreds of troops stormed the militants' jungle base in the country's south, military officials said Thursday.

Government forces attacked the base on Wednesday in an attempt to rescue the two kidnapped coast guard personnel and other hostages in a mountainous area in Sulu province, sparking a clash in which up to 15 gunmen may have died, Army Brig. Gen. Alan Arrojado said, adding there has been no military casualties.

The two coast guard personnel managed to escape during the two-hour gunbattle, he said.

"They told me by phone that the militants panicked and fled in different directions after seeing that the army had come so close and had begun the assault," Arrojado told The Associated Press by phone from Sulu.

The two coast guard personnel were kidnapped along with a village leader in southern Zamboanga del Norte province in May. They were later taken to an Abu Sayyaf jungle base in Sulu and shown blindfolded in a video while a knife was held to the neck of one of the hostages.

The village leader was beheaded last week and the militants threatened to kill the two coast guard hostages if a ransom was not paid.

One of the coast guard officers, Rod Pagaling, said he was worried about also being beheaded.

"When gunfire rang out as close as 15 meters (yards) from us, I thought it was my opportunity to survive so I ran away in the confusion," he told The Associated Press from a military hospital in Sulu.

A number of other hostages, including two Malaysians, are believed to be held in the same area. A Dutch bird watcher kidnapped nearly three years ago is believed to be held in Sulu by another Abu Sayyaf faction.

The Abu Sayyaf, with about 400 gunmen split into several factions, is on a U.S. list of terrorist organizations for deadly bomb attacks, kidnappings for ransom and beheadings.

It is one of at least four small armed groups outside of a peace deal the government signed last year with the largest Muslim rebel group, the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front, in an attempt to settle a decades-long separatist insurrection by minority Muslims in the south of the largely Roman Catholic country.

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