Philippine President Declares Martial Law in South

Richel Umel and Froilan Gallardo
Iligan City, Philippines
2017-05-23
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170523-PH-martial-620.jpg Two militants who are part of a combined group of Maute and Abu Sayyaf members patrol the streets near Marawi City in the southern Philippines, May 23, 2017.
BenarNews/Military hand out

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte placed his country’s second-largest island under martial law late Tuesday, senior officials said, as government troops clashed with gunmen linked to the Islamic State (IS) who had seized a hospital in the southern city of Marawi.

The declaration of 60 days of martial law covering the southern island of Mindanao marks the first time any Philippine administration has declared military rule anywhere in the country since the 1970s and early ’80s, when nationwide martial law was in force under President Ferdinand Marcos.

The announcement was made late Tuesday (local time) by a presidential spokesman and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana as they took part at a news conference in Moscow where Duterte was expected to cut short a visit to Russia to return to the Philippines to deal with the crisis in Mindanao.

“What the President has done is to declare (martial law) only for the island of Mindanao including Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-tawi,” presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella told the news conference.

The announcement followed news earlier in the day of the killings of a soldier and two police officers as government forces, backed by warplanes, clashed with about 100 suspected militants in and around the besieged hospital in the Mindanao city of Marawi, the military said. The militants belonged to two local groups affiliated with IS.

Twelve other government security personnel were wounded in the fighting.

Explosions could be heard for miles and local police were trying to pacify panicked residents of the predominantly Muslim city of Marawi, about 1,170 km (730 miles) south of the country’s capital Manila, police said.

Fighting reportedly erupted Tuesday afternoon after police monitored the presence of armed members of the Maute gang, an IS-linked group Duterte blamed for the bombing of his hometown of Davao that left 15 dead in September.

Whole city ‘blacked out’

Military officials said members of the Maute group joined forces with a faction of the Abu Sayyaf militant group that had pledged allegiance to IS and engaged troops in running gunbattles in Marawi.

The groups then took over the Amai Pakpak Medical Center and hoisted a black IS flag. Public offices throughout the city were locked down, said Col. Joar Harrera, a spokesman for the Army’s 1st Infantry Division.

At least three buildings were burning and the area was plunged into darkness with electricity cut off, officials said.

“The whole of Marawi City is blacked out. There is no light and there are Maute snipers all around so the troops are still on hold,” Lorenzana told journalists in Moscow, referring to one of the IS-linked groups, according to reports.

Provincial police chief Senior Superintendent Oscar Nantes said the clashes were concentrated near the Mindanao State University, also in Marawi city.

The Abu Sayyaf is a self-styled group of Islamic militants which in recent years specialized in kidnap-for-ransom, usually targeting foreigners. Members beheaded a German hostage this year, and two Canadians last year.

Last month, clashes between the Maute group and the military near the town of Piagapo, also in Lanao del Sur, left 37 militants dead, including a Malaysian and three Indonesians, the military said.

Bombing runs

The firefight apparently was ongoing at dusk Tuesday, with the military deploying airplanes to conduct bombing runs.

“The operation is focused on the alleged presence of Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon who is backed by at least 15 Maute group members,” Herrera said, adding that five soldiers suffered gunshot wounds.

Hapilon is one of the senior Abu Sayyaf leaders based on the island of Basilan, also in the south. He is considered one of the most radical members of the group, and has pledged allegiance to the IS in videos circulated online late last year.

The military spokesman said the rebel fighters were believed to number in the dozens.

Pascal Porchet, delegation head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, urged an immediate stop to the fighting to allow all civilians to move around the city.

“We are extremely concerned about the impact of the ongoing hostilities in Marawi City on the civilians,” he said. “We urge all parties to the conflict to spare civilians and respect civilian property, such as hospitals and schools, in fulfillment of their obligations to respect international humanitarian law.”

Defense officials abroad

The attack took place as top defense and security officials were traveling with Duterte in Moscow.

Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said a sporadic firefight was ongoing Tuesday evening and that the joint police, military team would not stop until Hapilon was captured or killed.

“We are also acting on reports that armed men had occupied the hospital and some other buildings,” he said in a statement. “We have enough troops and law enforcers on the ground, as well as all the appropriate equipment to support our troops.”

He appealed to residents to stay inside their homes or evacuate to safer areas if they still can, as well as give information “on enemy location and their movements.”

The imposition of martial law on Tuesday would be the first exclusively for Mindanao, the southernmost major island in the Philippines and home to more than 22 million people.

Two months ago, Duterte warned that he was considering imposing martial law in the troubled south as a measure in his war on drugs and local militant groups.

“If I declare martial law in Mindanao, I will see to it that all our problems will be solved,” the president told a news conference in Manila in late March.

Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato contributed to this report.

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