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Philippines: Martial law declared as militants battle with government forces

President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in the southern island of Mindanao following clashes between government forces and the Maute insurgent group

 NEW – Nineteen civilians have been killed in the fighting; 2,000 more are still trapped in Marawi City


President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines declared martial law in the southern island of Mindanao on Tuesday, May 23, following deadly clashes between government forces and Maute, a group that is believed to have pledged allegiance to Islamic State.

The national police and the military launched an operation earlier on May 23 in Marawi City to capture Isnilon Hapilon, one of the top terrorist leaders in the region. Instead, an intense firefight broke out.

Who is Isnilon Hapilon?

An April 2016 issue of the Islamic State’s weekly newsletter stated Hapilon – also known as Abu Abdullah al Filpini – was announced as emir of all Islamic State-loyal forces in the Philippines. However, IS has not officially declared a wilayah, or province, in the country.

Hapilon was also a longtime leader of Abu Sayyaf, a jihadist militant group that pledged allegiance to IS in July 2014.

Source: Long War Journal

Fighting has continued in Marawi, a mostly Muslim city in the predominantly Catholic country. A priest and several members of his congregation were taken hostage and multiple buildings were torched, including a church, the city’s jail, Ninoy Aquino School and Dansalan College.

The militants have claimed the lives of 19 civilians since Tuesday, according to military officials. At least 51 militants have been killed, along with 13 government soldiers and two police officers.

Thousands of people have fled Marawi, seeking safety from the violence. About 5,000 people were reported to be staying in temporary shelter in Iligan City, which is about 38 km (23 miles) north. Another 2,000 are reported to be trapped still in Marawi.

Foreign fighters adding to the mix

Militants from Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore are among the fighters that government forces are working to fight off, according to Solicitor General Jose Calida. These fighters, he said, are claiming Mindanao as part of the IS caliphate.

Calida added that security and intelligence units had been watching Maute and IS literature, which had orders to attack the Philippine government and for IS to declare establish a wilayah on the island of Mindanao.

Six of the 31 militants who have been killed were foreigners, military spokesperson Restituto Padilla confirmed.

An expanded martial law?

Duterte has not ruled out expanding martial law to other parts of the Philippines – or to the entire nation.

While remarking that many southern islands are within “walking distance” of each other, Duterte stated that he may “also decide to suspend the writ of habeas corpus in the Visayas,” referring to the group of islands just north of Mindanao.

The constitution allows the president to declare martial law for up to 60 days. Congress must approve the decision, and can choose to extend it.

Both the House and Senate received Duterte’s declaration five minutes before the 48-hour deadline enacted the 1987 Constitution.

But Duterte hinted he may need to keep it in place for longer, which would require another request and approval by Congress.

“If it can be done one week, I’d be very happy. But if it would take me until the end of my term to see that Mindanao is safe for everybody, I will do it.”

President Rodrigo Duterte

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