PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte threatened Wednesday to impose martial law nationwide to combat the rising threat of terrorism, after Islamist militants beheaded a policeman and took Catholic hostages while rampaging through Marawi City in Lanao del Sur.
Duterte declared martial law while in a visit to Moscow at 8 p.m. on Tuesday for the entire Mindanao—which makes up roughly one third of the country and is home to 20 million people—in an immediate response to the attacks by the gunmen, who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) group.
The declaration,which will last 60 days, was effective on May 23. Duterte named Armed Forces Chief Eduardo Año as martial law administrator in Mindanao, and extended his term by six months. Año was supposed to retire
in June and become Interior secretary.
“I will not hesitate to do anything and everything to protect and preserve the Filipino nation,” the President said
in a news conference Wednesday afternoon upon arriving from Moscow.
“I might declare martial law throughout the country to protect the people.”
Roughly 100 militants of the Maute terrorist group roamed through Marawi city, killing five soldiers and two policemen, taking a priest and an unspecified number of other people hostage from a church, setting fire to buildings and flying black IS flags, according to Duterte and his aides.
The military said 13 Maute group members were killed in fighting, but only two bodies could be accounted for. A total of thirty-three soldiers were wounded.
Duterte said the Maute also beheaded a local police chief after capturing him at a road checkpoint they had set up, as he expressed outrage at what he called the growing threat from militants allied to IS in Mindanao.
Fifty Maute men also stormed the Marawi City Jail and Malabang District Jail and freed 107 inmates on Tuesday evening, the Interior department said. The Maute tied up and disarmed 12 jail officers.
Armed men also took away two utility vehicles and two motorcycles, a fire truck, and mobile phones owned by the jail guards on duty.
Nationwide martial rule will be triggered upon the entry of IS-linked fighters in Luzon and the Visayas, Duterte said.
“The hardest thing to deal with would be the arrival of [IS] in our country. And it has to come to pass that there is really war going on and street fighting in Marawi itself,” Duterte told reporters.
“These things government cannot allow. It is an open defiance and the violence, the atrocities continue. Government must put an end to this,” he added.
Duterte cut short what was supposed to be a four-day visit to Russia after a gunfight between government troops and the Maute Group in Marawi City on Tuesday.
Clashes in Marawi City erupted as government troops were about to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, an Abu Sayyaf leader who has been named the Philippine head of the Islamic State.
The United States regards Hapilon as one of the world’s most dangerous terrorists, offering a bounty of $5 million for his capture. Security analysts say Hapilon has been trying to unite Filipino militant groups behind IS. These include the Maute group, which is based near Marawi.
The militants responded to the raid by burning buildings and conducting other diversionary tactics in Marawi, a mostly Muslim-populated city of 200,000 people, according to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.
Thousands of residents fled Marawi, according to an AFP photographer at a military checkpoint near Iligan, the next biggest city about 40 kilometers away.
It was unclear on Wednesday night 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. There were no reports of major clashes on Wednesday.
Hapilon’s Abu Sayyaf, based on the most southerly islands of Mindanao, has kidnapped hundreds of Filipinos and foreigners since the early 1990s to extract ransoms.
Writ may be suspended
As he left Moscow, Duterte said he would be “harsh” in dealing with terrorists. “I said earlier: ‘Do not force my hand to do it. I have to do it to preserve the Republic of the Philippines and the Filipino people,’” he said in a video clip posted on Facebook by Communications Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson.
Arriving in Manila, Duterte said the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus might also be suspended in the Visayas region, but assured the public that he would not allow abuses.
Suspending the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus means that the government can arrest and imprison anyone without trial.
“Remember that this is not intended for the law-abiding citizens. We are the least of your worry,” the President said.
“But if you confront government and my orders are one: to enforce the law. And anyone caught possessing a gun and confronting us with violence, my orders are shoot to kill… I said, I will not allow abuses. The courts are open. But anyone now holding a gun, confronting government with violence, my orders are spare no one. Let us solve the problem of Mindanao once and for all,” he added.
“I will not allow the country to go to the dogs. As I said, the military has the primary role now of keeping the law and order situation and in all parts of the Republic of the Philippines,” he added.
He said that as President and commander in chief of the Armed Forces, it is his duty to ensure the safety of the people.
“It is our Constitutional duty to ensure that every family, every community, all Filipinos, are assured to live in peace and harmony. We will stay true to our mandate and duty, this I can assure everyone,” Duterte said.
with DEMPSEY REYES AND AFP