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Philippine president threatens martial law

After beheading of policed chief, Duterte warns of ‘harsh’ measures against Islamic militants on southern Mindanao island

Philippine policemen check evacuees from Marawi at a checkpoint by the entrance of Iligan City, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao on May 24, 2017. /AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE
Philippine policemen check evacuees from Marawi at a checkpoint by the entrance of Iligan City, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao on May 24, 2017. /AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE

PHILIPPINES (AFP) — Islamist militants rampaging through a southern Philippine city beheaded a local police chief, President Rodrigo Duterte said Wednesday.

“The chief of police in Malabang on his way home, going back he was stopped by a checkpoint manned by terrorists and I think they decapitated them right then and there,” Duterte said as he justified his decision Tuesday to impose martial law on the southern region of Mindanao after militants, loyal to so-called Islamic State, battled with security forces and burnt buildings.

Duterte also said he may expand martial law to other parts of the country.

The Philippine president warned that martial law would be “harsh” and like a dictatorship in an effort to quell not just the gunmen in Marawi, a mostly Muslim-populated city of 200,000 people, but the rising threat of IS-inspired militancy emanating from Mindanao.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivers a speech to military personnel in Manila, on October 4, 2016. (AFP/Ted Aljibe)
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. (AFP/Ted Aljibe)

The gunmen raided a church in Marawi and took the local priest, Father Chito Suganob, plus an unspecified number of other people hostage, according to the head of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Philippines, Archbishop Socrates Villegas.

A Philippine soldier sits on an Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) while residents fleeing from Marawi city drive past on a highway going to Marawi, in Balo-i town, on the southern island of Mindanao, May 24, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE
A Philippine soldier sits on an Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) while residents fleeing from Marawi city drive past on a highway going to Marawi, in Balo-i town, on the southern island of Mindanao, May 24, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE

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

A regional military spokeswoman said Villegas’s report had yet to be verified.

The fighting erupted on Tuesday after security forces raided a house in Marawi where they believed Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the infamous Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom gang and Philippine head of IS, was hiding.

The United States regards Hapilon as one of the world’s most dangerous terrorists, offering a bounty of $5 million for his capture.

More than 100 gunmen responded to the raid by burning buildings and conducting other diversionary tactics, according to Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.

Photos posted on social media by residents showed the gunmen walking through the streets of Marawi and placing black flags that looked similar to those used by IS.

Lorenzana said on Tuesday night that many gunmen were hiding in buildings as snipers, making it difficult for security forces to combat them.

Thousands of resisdents fled Marawi, according to an AFP photographer at a military checkpoint near Iligan, the next biggest city, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) away.

Philippine policemen check the car boot of a resident fleeing from Marawi city, where gunmen who had declared allegiance to the Islamic State group staged a rampage, May 24, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE
Philippine policemen check the car boot of a resident fleeing from Marawi city, where gunmen who had declared allegiance to the Islamic State group staged a rampage, May 24, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE

“We heard a lot of gunfire and explosions yesterday. We hid inside, we were too frightened to go out,” Noraisa Duca, a Muslim resident of Marawi, told AFP at the checkpoint.

The gunmen killed one policeman and two soldiers on Tuesday, authorities said.

They reported further skirmishes overnight in Marawi but on Wednesday afternoon it was unclear how many militants were still in the city or if they had escaped into nearby mountains and forests that they have long used as hideouts.

The Abu Sayyaf, based on the most southern islands of Mindanao, has kidnapped hundreds of Filipinos and foreigners since the early 1990s to extract ransoms.

A Philippine policeman checks evacuees from Marawi aboard a truck at a checkpoint by the entrance of Iligan City, on the southern island of Mindanao on May 24, 2017. /AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE
A Philippine policeman checks evacuees from Marawi aboard a truck at a checkpoint by the entrance of Iligan City, on the southern island of Mindanao on May 24, 2017. /AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE

Security analysts say Hapilon has been trying to unite Filipino militant groups that have professed allegiance to IS.

These include the Maute group, which is based near Marawi.

Muslim rebels have been waging a rebellion since the 1970s for an independent or autonomous homeland in Mindanao, with the conflict claiming more than 120,000 lives.

The main Muslim rebel groups are involved in peace talks with the government.

But the Abu Sayyaf, Maute and other hardline groups want to set up an Islamic caliphate in the south for IS, according to security analysts.

The US and other Western governments warned this month that terrorists were planning to kidnap foreigners in tourist hot spots in the western and central Philippines, adding to longstanding advisories of abduction threats in Mindanao.

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