Tanks rolled into the mainly Muslim city of Marawi as Islamist insurgents reportedly torched buildings, seized Catholic hostages and raised the black flag of so-called Islamic State.
Lieutenant Colonel Jo-ar Herrera, a military spokesperson, told the media that the army used “very precise, surgical air strikes” from helicopters to force out the 30 to 40 militants who clashed with government forces and besieged the city.
The army sent about 100 troops to drive out the Maute group after a botched raid on Tuesday by security forces on one of the militants’ hideouts.
At least 21 people have died in fighting since the army raided the hideout of Isnilon Hapilon, who is on the US list of most-wanted terrorists and has a US$5-million bounty.
The militants were reportedly quickly reinforced and swept through the city while Hapilon appears to still be at large.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has declared martial law across Mindanao: home to around 22 million people. He said it might be extended across the whole nation.
“If I think that you should die, you will die,” Duterte, 72, said. “If you fight us, you will die. If there is open defiance, you will die. And if it means many people dying, so be it.”
Residents are fleeing the city of around 200,000 while black smoke rose.
Duterte claimed a police chief was stopped at a militant checkpoint and beheaded.
Marawi Bishop Edwin de la Pena said Islamists raided Marawi Cathedral and seized a priest, 10 worshippers and three church employees.
The US condemned the militants: “Cowardly terrorists killed Philippine law enforcement officials and endangered the lives of innocent citizens” saying it would provide “support and assistance to Philippine counter-terrorism efforts” as a “proud ally of the Philippines”.
Duterte told reporters after returning from Russia: “Government must put an end to this. I cannot gamble with Isis because they are everywhere and you know what is happening or you must be very aware of what is happening in the Middle East.”
Martial law allows Duterte to use the military to carry out arrests and searches.
He invoked the legacy of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who imposed martial law in 1972 for almost 10 years dominated by torture, extrajudicial killings, human rights abuses and corruption.
“It will not be any different from what the President Marcos did,” said Duterte. “I’d be harsh.”
Picture credit: YouTube