PHILIPPINE President Rodrigo Duterte says he might decide to expand the coverage of his martial law declaration to include the entire country, should the violence between Islamist militants and local security forces in Marawi City spill over into the Visayas and Luzon.
Local media reports quoted the president as saying this upon arriving in the Philippines from Moscow on Wednesday. Duterte also signed the martial law declaration that covers Mindanao for now and vowed to use all means – no matter how harsh – to crush the Islamic State-linked Maute group currently engaged in gun battles with Philippine fighters.
He stressed, however, he would not violate the rights of innocent Filipinos during the 60 days of martial law, following concerns raised by rights groups over the possibility of abuses.
“By virtue of the powers vested in me by the Constitution and by law, I had to declare martial law in the Mindanao group of islands for a period not exceeding 60 days, effective as of May 23, 2017,” Duterte was quoted in The Philippine Star as saying.
According to the daily, the following are the key features of Duterte’s martial law:
- “Shoot to kill” for “open defiance”
- Arrests, searches allowed without warrants
- Curfew in Lanao, Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat, North Cotabato, possibly Zamboanga
- Mindanao courts to remain open
- Martial law lifted when the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Philippine National Police (PNP) say situation is stable
The violence flared in Marawi on Tuesday afternoon after a botched raid by security forces on a hideout of the Maute, a militant group that has pledged allegiance to IS.
— GMA News (@gmanews) May 24, 2017
Fighters quickly dispersed, torching buildings and taking over bridges, a hospital, two jails, a church and a college. Duterte, who cut his Russia visit short to return home, said he heard reports they may have beheaded a police chief.
Duterte, who is a Mindanao native, said the IS must be repelled from the Christian-majority Philippines and he would use all means possible to crush the Maute group and the allied Abu Sayyaf, whatever the consequences.
“Anyone now holding a gun, confronting government with violence, my orders are spare no one, let us solve the problems of Mindanao once and for all.” – Duterte
The president said those with guns should “bring it out”, but at the same time should also make sure to have their IDs and gun licences with them.
“Just show your ID or your licence, specially your licence. I said, pagka nagpatayan pati civilian (If there are killings even of civilians), I will allow the civilians to carry their guns outside of their residence,” he said, according to The Philippine Star.
“But be sure it is licensed in your name. And do not falsify anything because you’ll also be detained and investigated.”
“If I think you should die, you will die. If you fight us, you will die. If there’s an open defiance, you will die, and if it means many people dying, so be it. That’s how it is.”
Soldiers and guerrillas set up rival checkpoints and roadblocks on routes in and around Marawi as civilians fled the city of 200,000 in droves, leaving behind what one official described as a ghost town.
Long queues of pickup trucks and jeeps crammed with people and loaded with belongings crawled along roads into nearby towns as troops searched vehicles for weapons and bombs.
The military said they had rescued 120 people from a school and a hospital and were trying to isolate Maute fighters while awaiting reinforcements that were being blocked by rebels.
Maute snipers and booby traps were hampering operations, which the army said could last three more days.
The Catholic church said militants were using Christians and a priest as human shields, and had contacted cardinals with threats to execute hostages unless government troops withdrew.
Thirteen militants and seven security personnel have so far been killed and 33 troops wounded, the army said.
The Autonomous Region in Mindanao governor Mujiv Hataman said militants freed 107 prisoners, among them Maute rebels.
Duterte said the martial law, which meant checkpoints as well as arrests and searches without warrant, would go on for as long as necessary.
The Philippines declared a state of emergency in Mindanao island as hundreds of separatist rebels lay siege on Marawi city. pic.twitter.com/DlWuSoW2NW
— AJ+ (@ajplus) May 24, 2017
He said he would consider some security measures in the central Visayas region next to Mindanao to facilitate arrests, and could even declare martial law nationwide. He was furious militants had hoisted the IS flag in Marawi.
“I made a projection, not a prediction, one of these days the hardest things to deal with would be the arrival of IS,” Duterte said.
“The government must put an end to this. I cannot gamble with IS because they are everywhere.”
Duterte said he would not tolerate abuses of power by security forces under martial law, but critics said the military rule in all of Mindanao, an island the size of South Korea with a population of 22 million, was an overreaction.
The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, a group of human rights attorneys, called it “a sledgehammer, knee-jerk reaction” that would “open the flood gates for unbridled human rights violations”.
The military has not explained how the raid on an apartment hideout went so badly wrong. The operation was aimed at capturing Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the Abu Sayyaf group notorious for piracy, banditry and for kidnapping and decapitating Westerners.
The Maute and Abu Sayyaf have proved fierce opponents of the military.
Learn more about Maute Group whose clashes with the military in Marawi City prompted President Duterte to declare martial law in Mindanao pic.twitter.com/iIhsJNtWPV
— CNN Philippines (@cnnphilippines) May 25, 2017
The armed forces said they were on top of the situation, but residents who fled told a different story.
“The city is still under the control of the armed group. They are all over the main roads and two bridges leading to Marawi,” student Rabani Mautum told Reuters in Pantar town, about 16 km (10 miles) away.
Bishops and cardinals urged Islamic leaders to persuade militants to free innocent hostages.
“We beg every Filipino to pray fervently,” Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines president Father Socrates Villegas said.
A BBC update on the situation has this background on the IS-linked Maute group:
- Group also known as IS Ranao, based in Lanao del Sur province
- Formed in 2012 by Abdullah Maute (or Abu Hasan) and his brother Omar
- Comprises a few hundred fighters, mostly from other armed Islamist groups
- First clash with military in 2013
- Pledged allegiance to IS in 2015
- Linked to Isnilon Hapilon, a militant with the Abu Sayyaf, another IS-linked terrorist group
Additional reporting by Reuters