Thousands Flee as Duterte Imposes Martial Law to Fight Islamists in S. Philippines

Published May 24th, 2017 - 05:00 GMT
Philippine policemen check evacuees from Marawi aboard a van at a checkpoint by the entrance of Iligan City, in southern island of Mindanao on May 24, 2017. (AFP/Ted Aljibe)
Philippine policemen check evacuees from Marawi aboard a van at a checkpoint by the entrance of Iligan City, in southern island of Mindanao on May 24, 2017. (AFP/Ted Aljibe)

Thousands of residents fled a southern Philippine city on Wednesday after President Rodrigo Duterte warned that the martial law he imposed to fight Islamist militants who laid siege on the municipality would be "harsh."

The people were seen leaving the city of Marawi, 800 kilometres south of Manila, on foot, by boat or in vehicles and motorcycles, said Mamintal Adiong Jr, vice governor of the province of Lanao Del Sur.

"It's a mass exodus of residents from Marawi," Adiong told a Manila radio station. "There are so many people walking along the highway and traffic is now bad because of the vehicles leaving the city."

Adiong said many of the evacuees were hoping to reach the nearby city of Iligan, about 40 kilometres away, to seek refuge there.

Duterte on Tuesday declared martial law in the southern region of Mindanao after approximately 100 militants laid siege to Marawi, a city of more than 200,000 people, after a firefight with government forces.

He also cut short an official trip to Russia to deal with the situation.

"To my countrymen, do not be scared. I'm going home," he said before leaving Moscow. "I'm cutting [short] my visit here to be with my countrymen and I will deal with the problem when I arrive."

"To those who have experienced martial law, it would not be any different from what president (Ferdinand) Marcos did," Duterte said. "I'll be harsh."

"I told you all before, do not force my hand to do it," he added. "I have to do it to preserve the Republic of the Philippines."

The militants burned a Catholic church, the city jail and two schools in Marawi, as well as occupying the main streets and two bridges leading to the municipality.

The gunmen also took hostage a Catholic priest and several other civilians from the Cathedral of Our Lady Help of Christians, according to Archbishop Socrates Villages, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines.

"They have threatened to kill the hostages if the government forces unleashed against them are not recalled," Villegas said.

Police confirmed that Father Chito Suganob and three other people were taken captive by the gunmen, who are believed to be members of local militant groups that have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State terrorist movement.

Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said martial law would be in effect in Mindanao for 60 days, but Duterte said the proclamation could be extended up to one year if needed to resolve the problem.

"If it would take a year to do it, then we will do it," he said. "If it's over within a month, then I'd be happy."

Under the constitution, Duterte needs to report to Congress within 48 hours of the declaration of martial law to get approval.

Authorities said the fighting erupted when a joint team of soldiers and police officers tried to serve an arrest warrant against Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the local Abu Sayyaf terrorist group.

Members of another local terrorist group called Maute protected Hapilon and clashed with the government forces, said senior superintendent Dionardo Carlos, the national police spokesman.

"The priority now is the safety of the public so that they are not caught in the crossfire; that's why the forces are moving slowly to contain the threat group," he said.

The hostilities caused panic among residents of Marawi, many of whom locked themselves up in their homes to avoid being caught in the crossfire, while others were stranded outside.

"I've never been so scared in my life," said Sittie Nadzmah Guiling, an 18-year-old student who stayed in her school overnight. "I want to leave and go to my aunt in Iligan City but I can't get a ride."

"There has been fighting in Marawi in the past, but it has never been this close to us," she added in an interview with a Manila radio station.

Noddy Summer, a teacher in Marawi, said many residents were afraid of martial law and hope that past abuses would not be repeated.

She also appealed to the military not to conduct airstrikes on the city to flush out the militants.

"Have mercy on us," she said. "We will be reduced to ashes. No airstrikes, aerial bombings please. That's what's terrifying all of us."

The late dictator Marcos placed the Philippines under martial law from 1972 until 1981 to fight alleged threats from communist rebels.

During that time, thousands of critics and activists were killed, while tens of thousands were tortured and arbitrarily detained. Marcos also suspended the writ of habeas corpus, took over various media outlets and dissolved Congress.

By Girlie Linao

© 2019 dpa GmbH

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