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Duterte declares martial law as IS-linked militants besiege south Philippines

  • Published at 03:12 PM May 24, 2017
  • Last updated at 02:58 PM May 25, 2017
Duterte declares martial law as IS-linked militants besiege south Philippines
An armoured personnel carrier belonging to government troops drives along a main highway of Pantar town, Lanao Del Norte, as it travels to reinforce Marawi city, southern Philippines May 24, 2017REUTERS

Lorenzana, the defence secretary, said at least two soldiers and a police officer had been killed. But the numbers could change as more information comes out

Islamic State group-linked militants swept through a southern Philippine city, beheading a police chief, burning buildings, seizing a Catholic priest and his worshippers and raising the black flag of IS, authorities said Wednesday. President Rodrigo Duterte, who had declared martial law across the southern third of the nation, warned he may expand it nationwide.

As details of the attack in Marawi city emerged, fears mounted that the largest Roman Catholic nation in Asia could be falling into a growing list of countries grappling with the spread of influence from the IS terrorist group in Syria and Iraq.

The violence erupted Tuesday after the army raided the hideout of Isnilon Hapilon, a commander of the Abu Sayyaf militant group who has pledged allegiance to IS. He is on Washington’s list of most-wanted terrorists with a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.

The militants called for reinforcements and around 100 gunmen entered Marawi, a mostly Muslim city of 200,000 people on the southern island of Mindanao, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Wednesday.

“We are in a state of emergency,” Duterte said Wednesday after he cut short a trip to Moscow and flew back to Manila. “I have a serious problem in Mindanao and the IS footprints are everywhere.”

He said a local police chief was stopped at a checkpoint and beheaded, and added that he may declare martial law nationwide if he believes the group has taken a foothold.

Lorenzana, the defence secretary, said at least two soldiers and a police officer had been killed. But the numbers could change as more information comes out.

On Wednesday, Marawi Bishop Edwin de la Pena said the militants forced their way into the Marawi Cathedral and seized a Catholic priest, 10 worshippers and three church workers.

On Tuesday evening, Duterte declared martial rule for 60 days in the entire Mindanao region, home to 22 million people, and vowed to be “harsh.”

“I warned everybody not to force my hand into it,” Duterte said on his plane en route to the Philippines. “I have to do it to preserve the republic.”

Martial law allows Duterte to use the armed forces to carry out arrests, searches and detentions more rapidly. He has repeatedly threatened to place the south, the scene of decades-long Muslim separatist uprisings, under martial law. But human rights groups have expressed fears that martial law powers could further embolden Duterte, whom they have accused of allowing extrajudicial killings of thousands of people in a crackdown on illegal drugs.

Details from inside Marawi were sketchy because it appeared to be sealed off and without electricity.

Hapilon, an Arabic-speaking Islamic preacher known for his expertise in commando assaults, pledged allegiance to the IS in 2014. He is a commander of the Abu Sayyaf militant group and was wounded by a military airstrike in January.

Troops sealed off major entry and exit points to prevent Hapilon from escaping, military chief of staff Gen Eduardo Ano said. He said the group erected IS flags at several locations.

Duterte met late Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin and said he is counting on Russia to supply weapons for the Philippines to fight terrorism.

While pursuing peace talks with two large Muslim rebel groups in the south, Duterte has ordered the military to destroy smaller extremist groups which have tried to align with the IS.

At least one of those smaller groups, the Maute, was involved in the Marawi siege. It’s one of less than a dozen new armed Muslim groups that have pledged allegiance to the IS and formed a loose alliance, with Hapilon reportedly designated as the alliance’s leader.

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