MANILA: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law on Tuesday (May 23) across the southern third of the country, after deadly clashes between security forces and militants linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group in a major city.
The announcement, made by his spokesman at a press conference in Moscow where Duterte was on an official visit, fulfils an often-repeated warning by the President that he would enforce military rule to quell security threats.
Duterte placed all of the southern region of Mindanao, which makes up roughly one third of the country and is home to 20 million people, under martial law, spokesman Ernesto Abella said in the nationally televised briefing.
He said martial law would be in place for 60 days, in line with constitutional limits on the use of military rule.
At least one policeman was killed in the hunt for Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the infamous Abu Sayyaf kidnap gang and Philippine head of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, according to Philippine military chief of staff General Eduardo Ano.
The fighting took place in Marawi, a mostly Muslim-populated city of about 200,000 people on the southern island of Mindanao, with the gunmen attacking a hospital during the clashes, Ano told CNN Philippines.
He said the fighting began when police and troops raided a house on Tuesday afternoon where Hapilon, the subject of a US State Department bounty of US$5 million (S$6.94 million), was believed to be hiding.
This triggered fierce clashes throughout the afternoon and into the evening, with Ano estimating there were about 50 gunmen.
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.
The militants beheaded Malaysian Bernard Then, who was kidnapped from a seafood restaurant in Sandakan, as well as an elderly German early this year and two Canadians last year after ransom demands were not met.
It has also been blamed for the country’s worst terrorist attacks, including the 2004 bombing of a ferry in Manila Bay that claimed more than 100 lives.
The US State Department bounty for Hapilon was offered following alleged terrorist acts against US citizens, including the 2001 kidnapping of three Americans in the western Philippines – two of whom were later killed.
Security analysts say Hapilon has been trying to unite Filipino militant groups that have professed allegiance to ISIS.
These include the Maute group, which is based near Marawi, hundreds of kilometres to the north of the Abu Sayyaf strongholds.
The Maute group has engaged in repeated deadly battles with the military over the past year in rural areas around Marawi.
The Marawi fighting came six weeks after the military foiled a mass kidnapping attempt by the Abu Sayyaf on the central resort island of Bohol.