Southern Philippine Militants Take 4 Hostages; Duterte Threatens to Expand Martial Law

Richel Umel, Jeoffrey Maitem and Froilan Gallardo
Iligan, Philippines
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170524-PH-clashes-620.jpg Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte walks past an honor guard at Manila International Airport after arriving on a flight from Moscow, May 24, 2017.

Islamic State-linked gunmen on the run from Philippine forces abducted a Catholic priest and three others Wednesday, officials said, as President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to expand martial law he imposed a day earlier in the country’s south.

Sporadic clashes went on for a second day around the southern city of Marawi, with many of its 200,000 residents fleeing the violence,after dozens of suspected Muslim extremists occupied a hospital, burned buildings and battled government troops.

By Wednesday evening (local time), the death toll from two days of clashes stood at 13 militants, five soldiers and one policeman. More than 30 government troops were wounded, the military said.

Violence broke out  Tuesday after a joint police and military team was sent in the area to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, a senior commander of the militant Abu Sayyaf Group who earlier pledged allegiance to the extremist group Islamic State (IS).

Hapilon (alias Abu Musab) is listed on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists and the U.S. State Department’s Rewards for Justice Program offers up to $5 million for information leading to his capture.

Officials said about 100 members of the Maute group, which was blamed for a September bombing that killed 15 people in another southern Philippine city, backed up the militants.

The gunmen set fire to at least three establishments, including a university, and stormed the Cathedral of Our Lady Help, taking with them a local priest identified as Chito Sagunob and several others, said Manila Archbishop Socrates Villegas.

“They have threatened to kill the hostages if the government forces unleashed against them are not recalled,” he said.

“We beg every Filipino to pray fervently for Father Chito and for other hostages. As the government forces ensure that the law is upheld, we beg of them to make the safety of the hostages a primordial consideration,” Villegas said.

Jesus Dureza, a senior presidential adviser, said about 1,000 extra soldiers were deployed to the region Wednesday to double the force of the troops already operating there.

“Expect that there will be more presence of the military in the area. It’s not only directed at the Maute terror group but all private armed groups as well to those all groups that will fight against the government,” Dureza told BenarNews.

Shortened Moscow trip

Duterte cut short his official trip to Russia on Tuesday night, when he announced that he was placing the entire island of Mindanao under military control before flying back to Manila.

In a video message, Duterte sought to calm fears, even as he compared his move to that of late President Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the Southeast Asian country with an iron fist for two decades.

“It would not be any different from what President Marcos did,” Duterte said. “I’d be harsh.”

He said he had been saying in the past “not to force my hand” into declaring martial law. But now, “I have to do it to resolve the crisis in the Philippines,” Duterte said.

“My countrymen, do not be too scared. I’m going home. I’m cutting my visit here to be with my countrymen. I will deal with the problem once I arrive,” Duterte said. “Let me just tell everybody that I have just declared martial law for Mindanao.”

His spokesman Tuesday night said the military rule would be good for only 60 days, but Duterte said he was prepared to extend it to a year.

Addressing reporters upon arriving Wednesday, he said he might extend martial law to include the central Visayas region, and perhaps the whole country if warranted.

“I may declare martial law throughout the country to protect the people,” Duterte said, and stressed he may even empower civilians to carry firearms and for the police to “shoot to kill” if they catch anyone violating martial law.

Under martial law, he said he does not “need to secure search warrants or warrants of arrest.”

Lawmaker, lawyers react

Edcel Lagman, a member of Congress who was detained during martial law, said he would fight to have the order revoked.

“If the Congress does not revoke the declaration of martial law, the Supreme Court may review the sufficiency of the factual basis of the proclamation of martial law or the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus,” he said.

The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers said it was raising “serious concerns on what appears as a sledgehammer, knee-jerk reaction to the declaration of martial law in the entire Mindanao island.”

“The recent incidents in Marawi do not justify the shotgun declaration of martial law. It is not the appropriate solution to the current conflict situation,” it said.

During his two decade in power, much of it under martial law during the 1970s and early ’80s, Marcos used military rule to quell what he said was a communist insurgency, ushering in human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings.

He was forced into exile in Hawaii in 1986 after a “people power” revolution toppled his government. He died in exile in 1989.

Violence continues

On Wednesday, sporadic violence around Marawi continued, with thousands seen rushing out of the city to safety.

In Manila, military spokesman Col. Edgard Arevalo said the situation in Marawi, about 1,170 km (730 miles) south of the country’s capital, had “stabilized” with security forces in full control.

The armed men were “not ISIS” but members of a local terrorist group, he said, using another acronym for IS.

“The news being circulated by these terrorists and their sympathizers are spurious and are meant to spread lies and disinformation. It is propaganda to attract foreign terrorists’ support and recognition,” he said.

“Follow on forces are under way as we speak to further ensure that we will keep the grip of the situation,” he said.

The military earlier said it launched the operation with the police Tuesday night in hopes of arresting Hapilon. It is believed that Maute militants are protecting him.

Both the Maute group and Abu Sayyaf have pledged allegiance to IS and vowed to carry out attacks across the Philippines, Asia’s bastion of Catholicism with more than 80 percent of the population belonging to the faith.

The Maute group was also responsible for a bombing at a night market in Davao City in September that killed 15 people, as well as an attempt to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Manila last year.


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