Security on a main highway in Pantar town, Lanao del Norte, after residents started to evacuate their hometown of Marawi city, southern Philippines, May 24, 2017.
Security on a main highway in Pantar town, Lanao del Norte, after residents started to evacuate their hometown of Marawi city, southern Philippines, May 24, 2017.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Wednesday he may impose martial law throughout the nation, after declaring military rule in the southern third of the country – the island of Mindanao – on Tuesday to combat militants who pledged allegiance to Daesh.

"I may declare martial law throughout the country to protect the people," Duterte told reporters after landing in Manila from a visit to Moscow.

He said the militants also beheaded a local police chief in the city of Malabang in Mindanao.

"The chief of police in Malabang, on his way home, was stopped by a checkpoint manned by terrorists and I think they decapitated them right then and there," Duterte said as he justified imposing martial law to combat the militants.

Priest and churchgoers held hostage

Daesh-linked militants abducted a Catholic priest and more than a dozen churchgoers while laying siege to the city of Marawi, Mindanao overnight. They set fire to buildings, ambushed soldiers and hoisted flags of the group, officials said on Wednesday.

The violence erupted on Tuesday night after the army raided the hideout of Isnilon Hapilon, an Abu Sayyaf commander who is on Washington's list of most-wanted terrorists with a reward of up to $5 million for his capture.

Abu Sayyaf is a small but violent militant group based in the southern Philippines and has pledged allegiance to Daesh. It united smaller groups, including the Maute which is based near Marawi.

The militants called for reinforcements from the Maute, and some 50 gunmen managed to enter the city of Marawi.

Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, said the militants forced their way into a cathedral in Marawi and seized a priest, 10 worshippers and three church workers.

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

Marawi under siege

Details from inside Marawi were sketchy because the largely Muslim city of more than 200,000 people appeared to be largely sealed off and without electricity.

Soldiers and rebels set up checkpoints and roadblocks on routes in and out of Marawi as a stream of men, women and children fled. Long queues of pickup trucks and jeeps crammed full of people and loaded with belongings snaked on roads leading into nearby towns.

Troops on a highway leading to Marawi city, Mindanao island, Philippines, May 24, 2017. (Reuters)
Troops on a highway leading to Marawi city, Mindanao island, Philippines, May 24, 2017. (Reuters)

"The whole of Marawi city is blacked out, there is no light, and there are Maute snipers all around," Secretary of National Defence Delfin Lorenzana said late Tuesday in Moscow. Delfin was accompanying Duterte on an official trip.

Duterte cut the trip short and headed back to the Philippines.

Lorenzana said dozens of gunmen occupied city hall, a hospital and a jail, and burned a Catholic church, a college and some houses.

Battle slowed down on Wednesday as the military tried to isolate Maute fighters while waiting for reinforcements. Maute snipers and booby traps were hampering operations, which could last three more days, the military said.

Thirteen militants and seven members of the security forces have so far been killed and 33 troops wounded in the fighting, according to the military.

What is the Daesh connection?

Isnilon Hapilon in an Arabic-speaking Muslim preacher known for his expertise in commando assaults. He pledged allegiance to Daesh in 2014.

The Maute group is one of several armed militant groups that have pledged allegiance to Daesh and formed a loose alliance with Hapilon reportedly designated the alliance leader.

It has been blamed for a bombing that killed 15 people in southern Davao city, Duterte's hometown, last September and a number of attacks on government forces in Lanao.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies